Schlossberg v. Solesbee, 2012 WL 141741 (D.Or. January 18, 2012)
Plaintiff was being questioned by defendant police officer when defendant noticed plaintiff was using a digital camera to capture the exchange. The cop got enraged and took the camera away. He arrested plaintiff and looked through the files on the camera without getting a warrant.
So plaintiff filed a civil rights lawsuit. Before trial, the court asked the parties to file briefs on whether plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The court found that the warrantless search of the camera was an unlawful search incident to an arrest, thereby violating the Fourth Amendment.
In its decision, the court noted that cases which have allowed warrantless searches of electronic devices incident to arrest established a dangerous new rule, namely, that any citizen committing even the most minor arrestable offense is at risk of having his or her most intimate information viewed by an arresting officer. The court recounted the case of some cops who, in a warrantless search of a drunk driving suspect’s cell phone, found and shared some naked photos of the suspect’s girlfriend. See Newhard v. Borders, 649 F.Supp.2d 440 (W.D. Va 2009).
The court disagreed with the rationale of previous cases that held electronic devices such as phones and cameras were like “closed containers” and were thereby subject to warrantless searches. It found that warrantless searches of electronic devices are not reasonable when they are incident to a valid arrest absent a showing that the search is necessary to:
- prevent the destruction of evidence
- ensure officer safety, or
- address other exigent circumstances
The court further found that all electronic devices should be subject to this broad protection — police should not have to distinguish between laptops, traditional cell phones, smart phones and cameras before deciding whether to proceed with a search of the device incident to arrest.
In sum, the court found that because plaintiff had a high expectation of privacy in his camera’s contents, defendant should not have reviewed its contents in a search incident to the arrest. He should have gotten a warrant instead.
So what do you think? Did the court get this one right?