Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Fulton holds that turning on a Cell Phone without a Warrant Violates a Party’s Right to Privacy

In a seemingly ground-breaking decision in favor of privacy advocates, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a thirty-five-page legal opinion has affirmed that police conduct that simply involves the turning on of a cell phone without a valid search warrant constitutes a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Such cell phone privacy issues remain a very hotly debated subject in the United States.

I. Brief Facts of the Case

According to the Court, this case primarily centers on a fatal shooting occurring on June 15, 2010, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, whereupon reporting to the scene of the crime, the police discovered a shot victim, whom before passing, advised that the assailant was an individual by the name of “Jeff.” Additionally, the police located a cell phone in the victim’s possession, including determining that “the call log [on the] cell phone revealed that in the hour preceding the shooting, [the victim] exchanged several brief calls with an individual listed as
“Jeff.” Later that same day, police were called to another location concerning drug activity and detained an individual by the name of Dean Fulton (“Fulton”), including seizing a smart cell phone from his possession. As part of the police homicide investigation, without a search warrant, the police turned on Fulton’s cell phone, searched the phone menu, and was able to discern the cell phone number, to which the police eventually identified it as the same number of shooting victim’s cell phone log. Mr. Fulton was subsequently charged with murder and possessing an instrument of the crime, and eventually sought to suppress the cell phone evidence.

II. Trial Court

In denying Mr. Fulton’s motion to suppress the cell phone evidence, the trial court determined that “the warrantless search in question was permissible because the search was limited to obtaining the assigned number to the phone…” According to the trial court, “there was no intrusion into [Fulton]’s personal life, nor any investigation of personal information accessible through the phone” and the warrantless acquisition of Fulton’s cell phone number “had no impact on the overall investigation of the case, because Philadelphia Police already knew about the interaction between [Fulton]’s cell phone and the decedent from [his] cell phone call log.” On appeal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

III. Pennsylvania Supreme Court Decision

In finding that the lower court’s erred by finding the warrantless searches of Fulton’s flip phone were permissible because they only minimally intruded on his privacy interests, the Court made a number of significant findings.

For instance, the Court relied heavily on the 2014 United States Supreme Court case which held that simply that “when police want to search a cell phone …get a warrant.” In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court has been explicit that “in order to access any information on a cell phone, police must first obtain a warrant” The Court in discussing these principals reasoned that “like one’s home, an individual’s expectation of privacy is in the cell phone itself, not in each and every piece of information stored therein …” Additionally, the Court emphasized that the size of the privacy intrusion is irrelevant where “the action need not uncover something ‘of great personal value’ [and] even a small, seemingly insignificant act of information gathering by police in a constitutionally protected area is a search.”

Further, the Court determined from a factual perspective that the police had violated Mr. Fulton’s search and seizure rights on three separate occasions. First, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that an illegal search of Mr. Fulton’s cell phone first occurred “when the detective powered the phone” [wherein] the act of powering on Fulton’s flip phone constituted a search, i.e., an intrusion upon a constitutionally protected area (Fulton’s cell phone) without Fulton’s explicit or implicit permission. Put another way, the Court found that powering on the phone to be “akin to opening the door to a home [and] it permitted police to obtain and review a host of information on the cell phone, including viewing its wallpaper, reviewing incoming text messages and calls, and accessing all of the data contained in the phone…”

Second, Court found a second warrantless search occurring when the police not only powered on Mr. Fulton’s cell phone but then proceed to navigate the phone menus, and sought to identify the phone’s number. As such, the Court affirmed that “the act of navigating the menus of a cell phone to obtain the phone’s number is unquestionably a search that required a warrant.”

Third, the Court that police conducted a third warrantless search of the phone when they,
monitored incoming calls and text messages. As the Court reasoned, “there is little difference between monitoring the internal and external viewing screens on a cell phone and searching the phone’s call logs … both result in accessing more than just phone numbers, but also any identifying information that an individual might add to his or her contacts, including the caller’s photograph, the name assigned to the caller or sender of the text message.”

To read the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in full, click here.

Contact Fienman Defense

If you or someone you know has been involved in an unlawful search and seizure of their cell-phone relating to a criminal matter, please contact Michael H. Fienman, Esq. Attorney & Counselor at Law. Call (215) 839-9529 or submit a request online.

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