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California Supreme Court Rules Cell Phones Can be Searched after Arrest

By Derek Gilna

In the case of People v. Diaz, the California Supreme Court ruled that after police take a cell phone from a suspect during an arrest, they can search the phone's text messages without a warrant. In their decision, the court relied upon United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 224 (1973), which held it was legal for an officer to search a cigarette pack found in an arrestee's coat pocket, and United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1, 14-15 (1977), which invalidated federal narcotics agents' warrantless search of a 200-pound foot locker after they took the men loading it into a car into custody.

Diaz's attorney, Lyn Woodward of Pacific Grove, California, argued that the data found on a cell-phone are "unrivaled" by items normally associated with things found on the person of the arrestee, arguing that Chadwick should be found controlling.

The Supreme Court did not agree, stating that "Nothing in these decisions even hints whether a warrant is necessary for a search of an item properly seized from an arrestee's person incident to a lawful custodial arrest depends in any way on the character of the seized item." The dissent disagreed, reasoning that since the cell phone is in police control, a warrant could be obtained to search it, stating that the majority's precedents "provide no basis for evading this court's independent responsibility to determine the constitutionality the search at issue." See: People v. Diaz, 51 Cal, 4th 84 – Cal: Supreme Court 2011.

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Related legal case

People v. Diaz