10/4/2011California: Appeals Court Approves Cell Phone Search During Traffic Stop
Appellate court rules California cops can look through a Blackberry during a traffic stop.
The California Court of Appeal on September 26 approved a police officer's rifling through the cell phone belonging to someone who had just been pulled over for a traffic violation.
Reid Nottoli was pulled over on December 6, 2009 just before 2am as he was taking a female friend home. Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriff Steven Ryan said Nottoli's silver Acura TL had been speeding on Highway 1. After speaking with Nottoli on the side of the road, Ryan suspected the 25-year-old was under the influence of a stimulant drug. His license was also expired, so Ryan said he would impound the vehicle. Nottoli asked if his car could stay parked on the side of the road, which was not heavily traveled and out of the way. Ryan refused so that he could conduct an "inventory" search prior to the towing.
Ryan testified that Nottoli's driving was not impaired, and Nottoli was not arrested for driving under the influence. As he rifled through the belongings in the car, Ryan found a fully legal Glock 20 pistol with a Guncrafter Industries 50 GI conversion that should have been stored in the trunk of the vehicle. He also noticed Nottoli's Blackberry Curve which, after it was turned on, displayed a photograph of a mask-wearing man holding two AR-15 rifles akimbo. Such rifles could have been legally possessed if owned before California's assault weapons ban took effect. The photograph could also have been taken in another state, but Ryan took it was evidence of possible "gun-related crimes."
Another deputy began reading all of Nottoli's cell phone text messages, photographs and emails. Much later, Ryan obtained a search warrant to grab more information from the phone, and then a second search warrant was obtained for Nottoli's home. Based on the information from the Blackberry, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office SWAT team on December 16 raided the Nottoli home. They found a large cache of weapons, a marijuana growing operation and $15,000 in cash, which the law enforcement officials kept.
At trial, Nottoli argued the cell phone search was illegal, and a magistrate agreed to suppress the evidence as obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The appellate court, however, only agreed that the phone search was unlawful as part of the inventory process for the automobile. The judges insisted that the search was valid as part of the arrest process in which no warrant is needed to examine items related to officer safety and the preservation of evidence, as expanded by the 2009 US Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. Gant (view ruling).
"In sum, it is our conclusion that, after Reid [Nottoli] was arrested for being under the influence, it was reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to that offense might be found in his vehicle," Justice Franklin D. Elia wrote for the three-judge panel. "Consequently, the deputies had unqualified authority under Gant to search the passenger compartment of the vehicle and any container found therein, including Reid's cell phone. It is up to the US Supreme Court to impose any greater limits on officers' authority to search incident to arrest."
The court reversed the lower court's order suppressing the evidence, but the decision was made solely to set legal precedent. Reid Nottoli died on September 4. A copy of the decision is available in a 120k PDF file at the source link below.