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Arizona Court Holds Probation Officers Can Search Probationer’s Cell Phones

In May of this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a case involving the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence that he claimed was illegally obtained when a probation officer searched through his cell phone after he had been arrested for violating his probation. Ultimately, the court held that the search was reasonable and permissible because, in accepting probation, the defendant permitted warrantless searches of his property.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, in 2014, the defendant was on probation for an Arizona domestic violence offense. The defendant was placed on probation. As a part of his probationary sentence, the defendant signed a document outlining the conditions of probation. Condition 4 stated that the defendant consented to warrantless searches of his property.

Not long after the defendant was placed on probation, a woman called police, reporting that she believed the defendant and her 13-year-old daughter were involved in a relationship. A probation officer followed the defendant, and noticed that he committed several violations of his probation. The defendant was arrested and placed into a police vehicle. On the way to the police station, the probation officer searched through the defendant’s phone, finding messages between the defendant and the young girl.

In a pre-trial motion to suppress, the defendant argued that the search of his cell phone was illegal because the probation officer should have obtained a warrant. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, and the prosecution appealed.

On appeal, the prosecution argued that the warrantless search of the defendant’s cell phone was permissible based on the fact that the defendant provided his consent to search his property without a warrant. The defendant acknowledged that a cell phone is technically “property,” but argued that under United States Supreme Court case law, an individual has a significant privacy right in the contents of their cell phone. The defendant cited the case, Riley v. California, in which the Supreme Court held that police cannot search the cell phone of someone they recently arrested without a warrant.

Here, however, the court distinguished the Riley case. The Court explained that, while officers may need a warrant to search an arrestee’s phone, they do not need one to search a probationer’s phone based on the consent given in Condition 4. The court explained that criminal defendants have the choice to either give up some of their freedoms and get released on probation, or, if they choose not to do so, they can be incarcerated instead. Essentially, the court viewed the defendant’s argument as an unnecessary extension of the Riley case, and rejected his argument. Thus, the search was upheld and the evidence was properly admitted at trial. And moving forward, it would appear that Arizona probation officers will be permitted to search probationer’s cell phones. However, there are still limitations on the reasonableness of a search.

Have You Been Arrested?

If you have recently been arrested and charged with a serious Arizona sex offense, contact Attorney James E. Novak for immediate assistance. Attorney Novak is a veteran criminal defense attorney with extensive experience handling complex cases. He routinely handles Arizona sex offense cases, and other serious felony crimes. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation to discuss your case with Attorney Novak, call 480-413-1499 today.

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