Privacy and The Cell Phone: Arizona Says Yes

Arizona recently recognized a “legitimate expectation of privacy” in cell phones. The case was State v. Peoples, and the opinion was issued on September 12, 2016.

The Peoples case was about the police’s search of a cell phone without a warrant. Robin Peoples was at his girlfriend’s apartment shortly before she was found dead. When paramedics responded to the 911 call to assist, Peoples went to a friend’s apartment and left his cell phone behind in the woman’s apartment. A police officer then found a smart cell phone in her apartment, swiped it to open and search for the woman’s doctor, and found a video that yielded incriminating evidence against Peoples.

After Peoples was arrested, his lawyer moved to exclude the evidence obtained from the cell phone, as well as statements made by Peoples while he watched the cell phone video with the police at the scene. The trial court granted the motion to exclude the evidence, but the Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, leading to the Supreme Court’s review of the case.

In ruling that the cell phone evidence should be excluded because it was obtained without a warrant, the Arizona Supreme Court held that Peoples had a legitimate expectation of privacy in his cell phone. The police thus should have obtained a warrant before searching the phone. The Court found that the privacy right “is no less worthy of protection when a cell phone is outside a person’s immediate control.” It found that Peoples had not abandoned his phone even though he left it behind for a short time.

The phone did not have a passcode enabled, and could be simply swiped to open it. The Court held that the phone was not required to have a passcode to create an expectation of privacy. “Personal belongings need not be locked for a legitimate expectation of privacy to exist…Cell phones are intrinsically private, and the failure to password protect access to them is not an invitation for others to snoop.”

The Peoples decision followed closely the reasons given in a landmark United States Supreme Court case. Two years ago, the Riley v. California decision by the United States Supreme Court analyzed privacy and electronic evidence in a new and detailed way. For an easy-to-read recap of the Riley case, read on here.

In Riley, the U.S. Supreme Court made a big point of treating electronic searches differently than physical searches. It recognized how much data that cell phones can now store, as well as the many distinct types of information they keep. It acknowledged today’s reality that “the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.”

The Peoples and Riley cases limit themselves to warrantless searches by police. They don’t specifically relate to searches with warrants, or to other contexts.

Please continue to follow our law blog for updates on privacy cases and news.

This entry was posted in Arizona, Digital evidence, Privacy.

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