Search Warrant Requirements in the Era of Social Media

By Brett A. Purtzer, October 2016

 Two recent and encouraging decisions, one from the United States Supreme Court and one from the Court of Appeals, Division III, illustrate that all is not lost in the fight against warrantless searches.  The facts in both cases are routine, and both Courts’ decisions warrant review.

Riley v. California, 134 S.Ct. 2473 (2014) is a consolidated case involving a decision from California and one from the First Circuit.  Both cases involved warrantless searches of cell phones incident to arrest.   On appeal, the California Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of a suppression motion whereas the First Circuit reversed the denial of a suppression motion and vacated the relevant convictions.

 In granting certiorari, the Supreme Court reviewed the Fourth Amendment case law regarding warrantless searches and exceptions to the warrant requirement, in particular, the search incident to arrest exception and how it applies to cell phones.  The Court held that officers must generally obtain a warrant before searching a cell phone.  In its analysis, the Supreme Court considered the search incident to arrest rationale set forth in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), which addressed the warrantless search exception when officer safety or possible destruction of evidence issues exist.  The Supreme Court held that police may not, without a warrant, search digital information from a cell phone seized from an individual incident to an arrest absent a specific exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

The facts in State v. Jardinez, (Nov. 18, 2014, Division III) are also straight forward.  Jardinez entered a guilty plea to drive by shooting and second degree unlawful possession of a firearm.  After serving prison time, he was required to report to his corrections officer and abide by his release conditions.  After Jardinez tested positive for marijuana, his corrections officer searched, without a warrant, the contents of Jardinez’s IPod Nano and found a video of Jardinez possessing a shotgun, another violation of his conditions.  After the shotgun he held in the video was found in his home, the State charged Jardinez with unlawful possession of a firearm.

The trial court granted Jardinez’s motion to suppress the warrantless search and ruled that there must be “a reasonable nexus between the suspected criminal activity and the search.”  On appeal, the State took the blanket approach that whenever a probation violation occurs, a warrantless search is authorized pursuant to RCW 9.94A.631(1) which authorizes searches by community corrections officers.  The Appellate Court disagreed and held that a nexus must first exist between the searched property and the alleged crime.  Since nothing about Jardinez’s use of marijuana was related to the IPod, the warrantless search was unlawful.

Both cases give hope that courts will not automatically affirm warrantless searches, and will, once again, protect the constitutional rights of individuals from the lawless acts of law enforcement officers, particularly when the search of electronics is at issue.