PA Supreme Court Agrees Police May Not Search Cell Phone Without Warrant

Zak Goldstein - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

Zak Goldstein - Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

Warrantless Searches of Cell Phones in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Fulton, agreeing with the United States Supreme Court that law enforcement officers generally may not search a cell phone incident to a defendant’s arrest without first obtaining a search warrant. The Court further concluded that the introduction of the evidence obtained from the illegal search of the defendant’s phone in this homicide case did not amount to harmless error. Therefore, the Court reversed the defendant’s conviction and ordered a new trial.  

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Fulton

On June 15, 2010, Philadelphia police received a call from Michael Toll reporting that he had been shot. Police responded to the call and found Toll in a vehicle on the sidewalk with gunshot wounds on the right side of his body. Toll told the police that Jeff shot him, and he gave them a description of Jeff. Police took Toll to the hospital and searched the car. They recovered a cell phone, and the cell phone showed that Toll had exchanged phone calls with someone listed in the phone as Jeff. Police determined that the number for Jeff was linked to a prepaid phone with no subscriber information.

Toll eventually died from his wounds. On the morning that he died, police received a call concerning drug activity and a man with a gun at a specific address. Police responded to the call and found several individuals in and around a 2002 green Mercury Marquis. The police saw a gun, a gun holster, and cell phones in the vehicle. They arrested the four men who were nearby. One of those men was Fulton, the defendant in this case. Police took a cell phone from Fulton incident to his arrest and obtained a search warrant for the vehicle but not the phone.

The Search of the Phone

The phones were given to Homicide Detectives who were investigating Toll’s death. The detectives opened the phones, turned them on, and examined them in order to determine the phone number associated with each phone. One of the phones turned out to have the same number as the phone number for Jeff that was in the decedent’s phone. Homicide detectives did not obtain a warrant prior to going through the phones. Further, detectives began answering incoming calls to the phone that had been linked to Jeff.

One person called and eventually told detectives that the phone number belonged to Fulton and that she regularly purchased heroin from him. Armed with this information, detectives interrogated Fulton, and Fulton promptly incriminated himself in the shooting. Police obtained a search warrant for Fulton’s residence and found ammunition which was the same as that used in the fatal shooting. Police also interviewed some of the other men who they had arrested along with Fulton and obtained statements from them which implicated Fulton in the murder. Accordingly, police charged Fulton with murder.

The Motion to Suppress

Prior to trial, Fulton moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the warrantless search and use of the cell phone. The trial court denied the motion, but the trial court made its decision prior to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California holding that police must obtain a warrant prior to searching a cell phone. Fulton went to trial and was eventually convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to 15-30 years of incarceration. Fulton appealed to the Superior Court, and the Superior Court denied the appeal.

By the time of the Superior Court’s decision, the United States Supreme Court had held that police may not search a phone without a warrant. The Superior Court recognized that police should have obtained a search warrant for the phone, but it held that the intrusion into the phone was minimal because police did not review personal data or social media located on the phone. Therefore, the Superior Court held that Riley did not apply. It also found that to the extent that the police violated Fulton’s rights, the introduction of the illegal evidence amounted to harmless error which would not justify overturning the third-degree murder conviction.

Petition for Allowance of Appeal

Fulton filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ultimately overturned the defendant’s conviction. The Court concluded that there was really no dispute. Riley’s holding could not be clearer: in order to access any information on a cell phone, police must first obtain a warrant. The Supreme Court did not create an exception for what police or courts may deem a minimally invasive search of a cell phone. The Court specifically rejected a case-by-case test for searches of phones. Instead, it held that police simply must get a warrant or they cannot use the results of the search of a cell phone in court. Any search of a cell phone requires a warrant.

The Court concluded that homicide detectives conducted three separate searches of the phone without a warrant. First, they searched the phone by powering it on. Second, they searched the phone by going into it and obtaining its phone number. Third, they searched the phone by monitoring incoming calls and text messages.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Having concluded that the police violated Fulton’s rights by searching the phone without a warrant, the Court next found that the constitutional violation did not amount to harmless error. The Court ruled that all of the evidence that was found due to the searches of the phone must be suppressed. This included the existence of the woman who identified Fulton as a drug dealer, her statement, and the evidence that the phone number was the same number as that for Jeff. Given the extensive use of this evidence against the defendant at trial and the fact that much of the evidence was contradicted and inconsistent, the Supreme Court rejected the idea that the conviction could stand under the harmless error doctrine. Accordingly, the Court vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial for Fulton without the illegally seized evidence.