Maryland Court Says It Would Still Be Equating A Smartphone With A ‘Crumpled Cigarette Pack’ If Not For Riley Decision

The Supreme Court’s Riley decision said law enforcement officers must obtain warrants to search cell phones incident to an arrest. A recent Maryland Appeals Court decision prevented the suppression of evidence obtained via a warrantless search of a smartphone. Why? Well, for a few reasons, most of which seem convoluted and almost inexplicable considering the context. (via John Wesley Hall of FourthAmendment.com)

The opinion opens with this:

Petitioner appealed the judgment of conviction to the Court of Special Appeals and, while the case was pending in that court, filed a petition for writ of certiorari, which we granted. We then stayed all proceedings in this case until the United States Supreme Court issued its decisions in Riley v. California, cert. granted, 134 S. Ct. 999 (2014), and United States v. Wurie, cert. granted, 134 S. Ct. 999 (2014). On June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court issued a consolidated opinion in those two cases. Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014).

Despite staying the case to hear from the Supreme Court on this issue, the Maryland court went in the other direction once that decision had been handed down. Considering the circumstances, this is probably the right decision, but one wonders why they bothered staying the case if it was going to rely on pre-Riley caselaw anyway.

Officers interviewing a suspect about a robbery took a look at his cell phone and found unopened text messages pertaining to the criminal act. The defendant sought suppression of this warrantless search of his phone but the court found that because the search had occurred before the Riley decision, the officers here were covered under the “good faith” exception because no warrant requirement existed at that point.

This would be all well and good (if a little bizarre considering the stay issued for the pending, but disregarded, Riley decision) if the court hadn’t decided to quote previous Supreme Court decisions so badly outdated they only serve to make the Maryland court look utterly ridiculous.

The suspect here had a smartphone. The Maryland Court exhumes the corpse of the 1973 US v. Robinson decision and applies it to the 2011 search.

The Supreme Court further developed the scope of the search incident to arrest exception in United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973). Robinson had been arrested for driving on a suspended license. The arresting officer, while conducting a pat down of Robinson, felt an object in his coat pocket that the officer could not identify. The officer removed that object—a crumpled cigarette packet—opened it, and found capsules of heroin inside. Id. at 220-23. The Court upheld the warrantless search as a proper search incident to Robinson’s arrest.

This is a court telling an appellant that — if Riley had not gone the way it did — it would still consider a smartphone loaded with personal information and a connection to web-based services offering even more personal information to be roughly equivalent to whatever might fit inside a crumpled cigarette pack.

Now, I have no problem with the court granting the “good faith exception,” considering the search occurred pre-Riley, but I do have my concerns about a court that will apparently only consider the implications of technological advances when the Supreme Court basically forces it to.

Attempting to apply a forty-year-old decision involving a small cardboard box to today’s smartphones is to indicate the court either has performed no serious independent thinking about the subject, or has somehow managed to escape dealing with relevant cases that might force it confront the fact that a computer that fits in someone’s pocket is not even remotely equivalent to the “contents” of said pocket.

To be fair, the DOJ has been equally unwilling to cede ground to logic and has argued for similarly non-comparable items to be deemed comparable by the nation’s highest court. But this is to be expected from an entity that acts on behalf of the nation’s law enforcement when presenting its arguments in court (despite having the word “Justice” in its name). A state appeals court, on the other hand, is actually supposed to be acting on behalf of the slippery term “justice,” and citing outdated caselaw does very little to serve that purpose.

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