May 20, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Warrantless Search of Cell Phone Violated Fourth Amendment

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Omwanda on Thursday, September 25, 2014.

Evidence Suppression of Information on Cell Phone—Theory of Defense Instruction.

Before trial, defendant sought to suppress evidence that police had recovered from his cell phone. At the suppression hearing, an officer testified that he stopped a car carrying six people, including defendant. With the driver’s permission, the officer searched inside the car, where he found electronic scales and a pill bottle containing cocaine. Two passengers said the pill bottle belonged to defendant.

The officer arrested and searched defendant. The search revealed another pill bottle and a cell phone. The second pill bottle contained a white residue. Defendant asked the officer to give the cell phone to another passenger, but the officer told him he would keep it as evidence. The officer read three text messages on the phone. All three indicated cocaine use and purchase.

The officer later applied for, and received, a warrant to search the phone. The warrant application quoted the text messages. The search of the phone pursuant to the warrant revealed additional communications and information indicative of drug dealing.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress because the search was incident to the arrest. The jury acquitted defendant of possession with intent to distribute but convicted him of possession of a controlled substance.

The Court of Appeals agreed with defendant that the initial search of the phone violated the Fourth Amendment as enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Riley v. CaliforniaRiley v. California, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 2473 (2014). In Riley, the Court held “that a warrant is generally required before . . . a search [of information on a cell phone], even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest.”

The People argued that even if the initial search was unlawful, the police independently discovered the information on the phone pursuant to the search warrant. A court may admit unconstitutionally obtained evidence “if the prosecution can establish that it was also discovered by means independent of the illegality.” The Court reviewed the officer’s warrant application and found probable cause to support the issuance of the warrant. The issue turns on whether the initial search of the three text messages affected the officer’s decision to seek the warrant. This required further factual findings. Accordingly, the case was remanded for further proceedings on this issue.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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