Search and Seizure: Ohio Supreme Court Rules Police Need Warrant to Search Cell Phones

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police officers must obtain a search warrant before reviewing the contents of a suspect's cell phone unless their safety is in danger. The ruling came on a narrow 5-4 vote of the justices.
hands off, at least in Ohio
The ruling came in State v. Smith, in which Antwaun Smith was arrested on drug charges after answering a cell phone call from a crack cocaine user acting as a police informant. When Smith was arrested, officers took his cell phone and searched it without his consent or a search warrant. Smith was charged with cocaine possession, cocaine trafficking, tampering with evidence and two counts of possession of criminal tools.

At trial, Smith argued that evidence derived through the cell phone search should be thrown out because the search violated the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. But the trial judge, citing a 2007 federal court ruling that found a cell phone is similar to a closed container found on a defendant and thus subject to warrantless search, admitted the evidence. Smith was subsequently convicted on all charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Smith appealed, but lost on a 2-1 vote in the appeals court. In that decision, the dissenting judge cited a different federal court case that found that a cell phone is not a container.

In the majority opinion Tuesday, state Supreme Court Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger wrote that the court did not agree with the appeals court and trial judge that a cell phone was a closed container. "We do not agree with this comparison, which ignores the unique nature of cell phones," Lanzinger wrote. "Objects falling under the banner of 'closed container' have traditionally been physical objects capable of holding other physical objects. ... Even the more basic models of modern cell phones are capable of storing a wealth of digitized information wholly unlike any physical object found within a closed container."

"People keep their e-mail, text messages, personal and work schedules, pictures, and so much more on their cell phones," Craig Jaquith, Smith's attorney, said in a statement. "I can't imagine that any cell phone user in Ohio would want the police to have access to that sort of personal information without a warrant. Today, the Ohio Supreme Court properly brought the Fourth Amendment into the 21st century."

But Greene County prosecutor Stephen Haller complained to the Associated Press that the high court had gone too far. "I'm disappointed with this razor-thin decision," Haller said. "The majority here has announced this broad, sweeping new Fourth Amendment rule that basically is at odds with decisions of other courts."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Introducing Dosage Regulation G-Phone (DRG)

The G-Phone (G for Ganja) would be similar to a Dug-out (with one-hitter shaped to look like a $igarette). There would, besides the electronic features, be at least one cavity in which to store sifted Ganja, tobackgo or any herb. There would also be one to store the one-hitter or an e-cigarette. The phone would keep track of how many times you took out the one-hitter, loaded a toke, etc. and give you polite verbal warnings, when needed, in a voice similar to Bogart or Sinatra. This responsible-use paradigm should help settle the Ohio "drug" dispute favorably and help everyone get on with the main issue which is to eliminate the hot burning overdose $igarette genocide.

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