WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Saying the nature of information contained on a cell phone "sets it apart from other physical objects," a South Florida appeals court Wednesday ruled that police needed a warrant before searching a phone that had been left behind in a stolen car.
A three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a circuit judge's decision to suppress evidence obtained from an abandoned cell phone in a case involving a juvenile identified by the initials K.C.
The decision stemmed from an incident in which a Lauderhill police officer stopped a vehicle that was speeding and operating without headlights at night, Wednesday's ruling said. Two people got out and fled, but the officer found a cell phone left behind in the vehicle, which later was determined to have been stolen in Sunrise. The officer turned over the cell phone, which was protected by a password, to Sunrise police.
A Sunrise detective later was able to unlock the phone, which was determined to belong to K.C. The juvenile was charged with burglary of a conveyance but sought to suppress the information found on the cell phone.
In an 11-page ruling, the appeals court agreed with the juvenile's arguments that police needed a warrant to gain access to the information.
"While we acknowledge that the physical cell phone in this case was left in the stolen vehicle by the individual, and it was not claimed by anyone at the police station, its contents were still protected by a password, clearly indicating an intention to protect the privacy of all of the digital material on the cell phone or able to be accessed by it," said the ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Martha Warner and joined by judges Dorian Damoorgian and Alan Forst. "Indeed, the password protection that most cell phone users place on their devices is designed specifically to prevent unauthorized access to the vast store of personal information which a cell phone can hold when the phone is out of the owner's possession."
The ruling also said the "United States Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court have recognized the qualitative and quantitative difference between cell phones (and their capacity to store private information) and that of other physical objects and the right of privacy in that information."