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Arizona Court Upholds Warrantless Search of Probationer’s Cell Phone

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued an opinion that may have broad implications for Arizona criminal defendants. The case involved a defendant who was charged with engaging in sexual conduct with a minor after police saw inappropriate text messages on his cellular phone. The case required the court to decide whether police officers had the legal authority to search the defendant’s cell phone after he was arrested for violating his probation.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was placed on probation for a felony offense in 2014. In December of that year, a woman contacted the police explaining her concern that the defendant was engaging in an inappropriate relationship with her 13-year-old daughter. A few weeks later, police arrested the defendant for violating several terms of his probation.

After the defendant was arrested, a probation officer went through the defendant’s cell phone on the way to the police station. The officer saw several texts between the defendant and the 13-year-old girl. Police obtained a search warrant and discovered incriminating text messages and pictures on the defendant’s phone.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the contents of his phone, arguing that the probation officer did not have the authority to go through his phone after his arrest. The prosecution responded with two related arguments. First, that the search was legal because the defendant was on probation and probationers have a reduced expectation of privacy. Second, the prosecution argued that the search was consensual because, as a condition of probation, the defendant agreed to searches of his home and belongings without the need for a search warrant.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion, finding that the defendant’s general consent to allow probationary searches was limited to the administrative searches related to violations of probation, and did not extend to a search of his cell phone. The prosecution appealed.

On appeal, the case was reversed. The court did not base its decision on a single factor, and instead relied on the “totality of the circumstances.” Among the factors that the court considered were the following:

  • the defendant had a reduced expectation of privacy because he was on probation;
  • the defendant consented to searches of his property as a condition of probation;
  • the defendant was alleged to have been involved in an inappropriate relationship with a young girl; and
  • cell phones are known to aid in committing sexual offenses against children.

Importantly, this is still a developing area of the law, and it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will continue to consider cases involving questionable searches of cell phones.

Have You Been Subjected to a Questionable Search?

If you have recently been charged with a serious crime after being subjected to a questionable search, contact Attorney James E. Novak. Attorney Novak is a dedicated Arizona criminal defense attorney with extensive experience handling a wide range of cases, including Arizona sex offenses. To learn more about how Attorney Novak can help you in your situation, call 480-413-1499 to schedule a free consultation today.

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