Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Florida Supreme Court rules against warrantless cellphone searches

The Florida Supreme Court delivered a blow to law enforcement officials Thursday, ruling 5-2 that police needed a search warrant to access the data stored on an arrested person's cellphone.

The decision came in the closely watched case of Cedric Smallwood and involved the 2008 robbery of a convenience store in Jacksonville.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Fred Lewis said that in Smallwood's case, "a warrant was required before the information, data and content of the cellphone could be accessed and searched by law enforcement."

The ruling comes as the 2013 Legislature is wrapping up its agenda without addressing bills filed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, that would have prevented warrantless cellphone searches.

Many law enforcement officials lobbied against the Brandes and Trujillo bills, saying they would make it more difficult to apprehend criminals.

Among them was Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who accused lawmakers seeking restrictions on such searches of protecting drug dealers and child pornographers.

On Thursday, Gualtieri said that while he respects the court's decision, the possible consequences concern him.

"That's the court's decision and we'll live with it. That's the tough question for us as a society: Where is that line? Is the result going to be that some evidence may not be collected tomorrow that was collected yesterday? Probably so," Gualtieri said.

Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston shared a dissenting opinion in the Smallwood case and warned that the majority decision "has the potential to work much mischief in Fourth Amendment law." The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Opinions about the potential impact of the court's decision on policing varied at Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies.

The ruling will have a "really minimum" impact on the agency's current practices, said Hills­borough County Sheriff's Office Col. Donna Lusczynski.

"We have been currently drafting search warrants to look at phones," Lusczynski said, adding that the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office began requesting warrants in recent years. "We just need to make sure it becomes a matter of policy and that we confirm the law."

In some instances, such as an officer safety issue, a warrant was not written to examine a cellphone, said Lusczynski, who oversees the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office's department of investigative services.

That a criminal may have some time to delete evidence from cellphones is "absolutely a concern," she said, especially if the phone can't be confiscated from the suspect during a search.

"Sometimes, we don't have a justification to take someone's phone and potential evidence could be destroyed," she said.

The Tampa Police Department will inform officers about the court's decision, said spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

"For now, we will obtain a search warrant before searching a suspect's cellphone," she said. "It probably will not affect previous cases because it is a change to existing law."

Gualtieri said he was pleased the issue was decided by the courts, not lawmakers. He also applauded the justices for leaving an exemption for "exigent circumstances" in which police could search phones and other devices. Still, he said, the ruling might allow some criminals to evade arrest.

A man found with five child pornography photos in his pocket would be arrested, Gualtieri said, but if he instead had those same images on his phone, "he's going to get away with it."

Charlie Frago can be reached at (727) 445-4159 or Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Laura Morel contributed to this report.

Florida Supreme Court rules against warrantless cellphone searches 05/02/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 2, 2013 10:57pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Trigaux: For Class of 2016, college debt loads favor Florida graduates


    Florida college graduates saddled with student debt: Take heart. The average debt Class of 2016 Florida grads must bear is less than students in most states.

    University of South Florida undergraduates gather at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa for last fall's commencement ceremony. A new survey finds their average student debt upon graduating was $22,276. Statewide, 2016 Florida grads ranked a relatively unencumbered 45th among states, averaging $24,461 in student debt. [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
  2. Romano: One person, one vote is not really accurate when it comes to Florida


    Imagine this:

    Your mail-in ballot for the St. Petersburg mayoral election has just arrived. According to the fine print, if you live on the west side of the city, your ballot will count as one vote. Meanwhile, a ballot in St. Pete's northeast section counts for three votes.

    Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections worker Andrea West adds mail ballots to an inserter Sept. 22 at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Service Center in Largo. (SCOTT KEELER   |   Times)
  3. St. Petersburg will hold first budget hearing tonight

    Local Government

    ST. PETERSBURG — The Sunshine City's new property tax rate looks exactly like its current rate. For the second year in a row, Mayor Rick Kriseman does not plan to ask City Council for a tax hike or a tax cut.

    Mayor Rick Kriseman talks about the state of the city on Tuesday, two days after Hiurricane Irma passed through the state. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
  4. 'We were lucky': Zephyrhills, Dade City get back to normal after Irma


    Two weeks after Hurricane Irma struck Florida, residents and city officials in eastern Pasco — hit harder than other areas of the county — are moving forward to regain normalcy.

    Edward F. Wood, 70, tugs at a branch to unload a pile of debris he and his wife picked up in their neighborhood, Lakeview in the Hills in Dade City.
  5. After Hurricane Irma, many ask: How safe are shelters?


    NAPLES — Residents of the Naples Estates mobile home park beamed and cheered when President Donald Trump and Gov. Rick Scott strolled amid piles of shredded aluminum three days after Hurricane Irma to buck up residents and hail the work of emergency responders. But almost nobody had anything good to say about …

    The Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area opened its doors to anyone seeking temporary shelter during Hurricane Irma. Evacuees were housed in the Istaba multipurpose building and was quickly at capacity housing over 500 people. [Saturday, September 9, 2017] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]