People v. Diaz: Is Your iPhone Constitutionally Protected?

This January in People v. Diaz (PDF), the Supreme Court of California affirmed the Court of Appeals decision that a warrantless search of the text message folder on an arrested person’s phone was valid as incident to a lawful custodial arrest. The facts of this case are as follows: Diaz was arrested after selling Ecstasy to a police informant posing as a drug purchaser. Upon arrest, Diaz’s cell phone was seized and placed into evidence. After Diaz was interviewed in custody, Senior Deputy Sheriff Victor Fazio looked through Diaz’s cell phone text messages and found a text detailing a sale of Ecstasy. Diaz was charged with selling a controlled substance. Diaz pleaded not guilty and moved to quash the information gained from the search of his text messages, alleging such a warrantless search of his cell phone violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion, reasoning the search was incident to the arrest. The Supreme Court of California affirmed. The primary issue was whether a cell phone is considered property incidental to a person and therefore searchable without a warrant or instead a pathway to personal data which consequently necessitates greater Fourth Amendment protection.

The Court’s Rationale for its Decision

The Fourth Amendment provides “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Typically, warrantless searches — “searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate” — “are per se unreasonable . . . subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967).

Before 1973, Courts typically applied a more narrow application of Fourth Amendment protection to searches incidental to one’s person. This was changed in U.S. v. Robinson, where the Court determined “warrantless searches of arrestees’ persons are presumptively reasonable and require no additional justification to be lawful.” This broad application was further reinforced the following year in U.S. v. Edwards where the court held that the defendant’s clothing could be searched after a delayed period of time and this did not violate the Fourth Amendment. When analyzing the Diaz case, the Supreme Court focused on the exceptions of a lawful warrantless search, noting that this exception “has traditionally been justified by the reasonableness of searching for weapons, instruments of escape, and evidence of crime when a person is taken into official custody and lawfully detained.”

Following the decisions in Robinson and Edwards, the Court narrowed its application slightly in U.S. v. Chadwick where it determined that while warrantless searches of objects found on arrestees’ persons are presumptively lawful due to the “reduced expectations of privacy caused by the arrest,” closed containers not immediately associated with arrestees’ persons are not subject to a postponed warrantless search, barring exigent circumstances.

What’s going on in Diaz?

The primary discussion in this case revolved around privacy issues and what level of protection should be yielded to the data stored in personal cell phones. Diaz argued (PDF) the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights because cell phones “contain quantities of personal data unrivaled by any conventional item of evidence traditionally considered to be immediately associated with the person of the arrestee, such as an article of clothing, a wallet, or a crumpled cigarette box found in an arrestee’s pocket, and therefore implicate heightened privacy concerns.”

The Diaz argument highlights the concerns within the privacy discussion today. The prevalence of smart phones, and the significant amount of personal data they hold, leads to questions of how much of this information is open for search upon arrest. The dissent in Diaz noted such concerns by heeding the evolving technology of cell phones and the wide range of information on such devices. In the dissenting opinion (PDF), Justice Moreno expressed concern with the majority’s holding stating it “goes much further, apparently allowing police carte blanche, with no showing of exigency, to rummage at leisure through the wealth of personal and business information that can be carried on a mobile phone or handheld computer merely because the device was taken from an arrestee’s person. The majority thus sanctions a highly intrusive and unjustified type of search, one meeting neither the warrant requirement nor the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Those interpreting the Fourth Amendment today are forced to analyze and apply the Constitution to an iPhone or other advanced technological devices the framers were likely not thinking of when drafting.  This case is another example, which illuminates the changing perceptions of privacy as technology evolves.