from the nestled-in-one-of-many-warrant-exceptions dept
In 2014, the Supreme Court extended Fourth Amendment coverage to the contents of cell phones. Prior to that ruling, cops had successfully argued that searching the contents of someone’s cell phone was no different than searching the contents of their pockets when arresting them. Claims — bad ones — were made about “officer safety” and, for the most part, courts tended to agree. If the pants pocket argument didn’t work, cell phones — with their wealth of personal information and private communications — were analogized as the digital equivalent of car trunks or address books.
This protection only extends so far, as one parolee has discovered. The key is in the wording of the Supreme Court’s Riley decision, which apparently doesn’t cover someone being arrested for parole violations. But the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision [PDF] seems to undercut some of the findings of the Riley decision, which recognized the personal nature of these computers capable of being carried in someone’s pocket. In doing so, it appears to say this enhanced expectation of privacy simply doesn’t apply to anyone on parole or probation.
The opening paragraph appears to show something that oversteps the bounds of the search incident to arrest, at least in relation to the parole violation.
Henry Wood was arrested for violating his parole. Midway through the arrest, parole agents found methamphetamine hidden underneath the back cover of his cellphone. An investigator later extracted the data from his cellphone, revealing child pornography.
While the discovery of drugs may have been inevitable, given its location, it’s unclear why this investigator decided a forensic search of the phone’s digital contents was necessary. While Wood had served time on meth charges, the discovery of meth doesn’t alone appear to justify a full search of his phone. The violation he was picked up for was failing to report to his parole officer. His phone was seized as “evidence” during his arrest and the phone search was performed — without a warrant — a week later.
Parolees do have a lowered expectation of privacy in just about everything, but it doesn’t seem this agreement signed by Wood covers the contents of his phone.
I understand that I am legally in the custody of the Department of Correction and that my person and residence or property under my control may be subject to reasonable search by my supervising officer or authorized official of the Department of Correction if the officer or official has reasonable cause to believe that the parolee is violating or is in imminent danger of violating a condition to remaining on parole.
The crime was failing to report. The search of the outside of the phone led to the discovery of meth. The phone search was in service of… ??? It seems the search of the device occurred mainly because investigators believed Wood’s parole agreement allowed them to perform one without seeking a warrant.
The Appeals Court says there’s nothing wrong with this. Riley only covers certain situations.
Wood asks us to apply Riley v. California to parolees. The primary problem with this request is that Riley dealt with searches incident to a lawful arrest. The Supreme Court carefully tailored its analysis to that context and expressly recognized that “other case‐specific exceptions may still justify a warrantless search of a particular phone.”
Wood pointed out he was arrested and the phone search could plausibly be called “incident to arrest.” The Seventh Circuit doesn’t care for this argument. Instead, it says it could be plausibly argued Wood was never out of law enforcement’s custody at any point, so the arrest wasn’t a new event but rather just an unfortunate continuation of his incarceration.
Wood maintains his arrest rendered Samson inapplicable and instead triggered Riley. On its face, this seems plausible—Wood was arrested, making him an arrestee, and Riley is about arrestees. But a parolee is on the “‘continuum’ of state‐imposed punishments,” one step removed from incarceration. See Samson, 547 U.S. at 850. A custodial arrest would not increase a parolee’s privacy expectations by placing him outside Samson’s reach. Upon arrest, Wood’s status was not transformed from parolee to arrestee, but from parolee to parolee‐arrestee, so Samson continued to apply.
In the court’s eyes, the needs of the state (keeping an eye on parolees, reducing recidivism) justify the lowered expectation of privacy for parolees, making them (and their property) subject to warrantless searches. The court says the Supreme Court expressly referred to this carveout when establishing its warrant requirement for cell phone searches.
Reducing recidivism is an independent goal of the parole system, exclusive from those discussed in Riley, and it would be frustrated by imposing a warrant requirement because it would incentivize concealment of criminal activity.
And that’s the end of the discussion for now. Riley doesn’t apply to devices owned by parolees. They may have been granted a small percentage of their rights in exchange for their continued good behavior, but apparently a warrant requirement for phone searches isn’t one of them. There’s nothing more personal for some people than their phones, but if you’re still working off your debt to society, the state can access your personal data and private conversations on a whim.