The Austin American-Statesman reports that the Court of Criminal Appeals, the State’s highest criminal court, has decided that warrantless searches of cell phones following arrests are in violation of both the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution and Article I, Section 9 of the Texas Constitution. The court held 8-1 that the State (prosecution) has no justifiable reason to easily look through the phones, which the court held was closer aligned with the “papers” mentioned in the Fourth Amendment than the other property typically rummaged through following arrests.
In this particular case, a young man was arrested following causing a ruckus on a school bus, a fairly low level misdemeanor. After receiving a tip, a police officer (a different one from the arresting officer) learned that the defendant had allegedly taken an improper photograph of a classmate, which is a felony. Police searched his cell phone without his consent and without a warrant and found the photographs. This particularly crime comes with a maximum penalty of two years in prison, but the other implications of a felony conviction are far worse.
A trial court suppressed the cell phone from evidence, as did the Court of Appeals. In nearly a unanimously ruling, the State’s highest criminal court affirmed. Writing for the majority, Justice Cathy Cochran (R-Houston) explained that the Fourth Amendments’ definition of “papers and effects” has been drastically altered in recent years.
“The term ‘papers and effects’ obviously carried a different connotation in the late 18th century than it does today,” Justice Cochran wrote in her majority opinion. “No longer are they stored only in desks, cabinets, satchels and folders. Our most private information is now frequently stored in electronic devices such as computers, laptops, iPads and cell phones, or in ‘the cloud’ and accessible by those electronic devices.”
The only dissenter was Justice Michael Keasler (R-Dallas), who remained somewhat skeptical as to the idea that a cell phone should be considered any less of average property than the trousers they may have been confiscated therein. Fortunately, this idea found no refuge from any other Justices.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is well known for being a fiercely conservative court, one stacked with former prosecutors that often neglects the rights of the individuals. The court, which has historically been all Republican, currently sits as 8 Republicans and 1 Democrats, following Justice Larry Meyer (D-Forth Worth) announcing his intent to switch parties.
The decision has already been heralded as a victory for individual rights, specifically in the internet age. Please click here for the full opinion from Justice Cochran.
Grits for Breakfast has more.