(Jan. 26, 2010) The Ohio Supreme Court has held that the warrantless police search of a cell phone violates the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Ohio municipal police convinced a woman to call appellant Antwaun Smith to arrange a purchase of illegal drugs at the woman's home. Smith was arrested there and his cell phone was taken by police. After the arrest, police searched the cell phone without Smith's consent or a warrant and obtained incriminating evidence. At trial, Smith tried to suppress this evidence, arguing that it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. The trial court admitted the evidence, and Smith was convicted. Smith appealed, an intermediate appellate court affirmed the conviction, and the Ohio Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction over the appeal.
The Ohio Supreme Court held that a warrantless search of data within a cell phone that is seized during an arrest is prohibited by the Fourth Amendment when the search is unnecessary for the safety of law-enforcement officers and there are no exigent circumstances.
The court explained that warrantless searches are generally deemed unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, subject to certain exceptions. One such exception is that police may conduct warrantless searches of certain items in the possession of persons they are arresting, such as address books and closed containers like purses and shoulder bags. Some courts had held that electronic devices such as cell phones are analogous to closed containers that may be searched. The Ohio Supreme Court declined to follow these courts, instead following the United States Supreme Court's definition of a closed container as an object capable of holding another physical object. The court went on to rule that because cell phones, unlike physical address books, can transmit and store large amounts private personal information, their owners have significant privacy interests in them. It concluded that once a cell phone is secured in police custody, a warrant is required to search its contents.
Three justices dissented, arguing that the police search of phone numbers on a cell phone is analogous to searches of a physical address book. (State v. Smith, No. 2009-Ohio-6426 (Dec. 15, 2009), available at http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/rod/docs/pdf/0/2009/2009-Ohio-6426.pdf.)