Local case dropped over cell phone warrant law
Wednesday, July 02, 2014 11:00 AM
The effects of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision are being felt in Madison.
The Court ruled last week that police need a warrant to search a person's cell phone.
In the past, law enforcement officials have treated a cell phone like a purse, wallet or diary found on a person during an arrest, meaning it could usually be searched, Jefferson County Prosecutor Chad Lewis said.
Police generally need a warrant to search someone's property, Lewis said, unless the subject gives consent for a search, or the arresting officer conducts a search after an arrest. In that instance, the arresting officer is allowed to search a subject without a warrant in the interest of the officer's safety, to help prevent escape or the destruction of evidence.
"The foundation of that is, if you arrest someone, you want to make sure they don't have any weapons or they can hurt you," Lewis said.
As cell phones have become more sophisticated, they have fallen into a gray area.
"Everyone was doing it (handling cell phones) differently," Lewis said. "We kind of have to make the best decisions we can until the Supreme Court rules on certain areas of law."
In the unanimous decision on Riley v. California, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that cell phones are not "just another technological convenience."
"With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans 'the privacies of life,'" Roberts said. "The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple - get a warrant."
The Supreme Court's decision has already led to a case being dropped by the Jefferson County Prosecutor's Office.
"We had a case in Circuit Court based solely off cell phone evidence that we had to drop," Lewis said.
The case involved Christopher M. Hammill, 34, who was arrested June 5 on charges of possession of methamphetamine with the intent to deliver.
According to an affidavit filed by the police department, Madison Police Det. Lt. Jonathon Simpson contacted William J. Neyer, about a drug transaction after an informant gave Simpson contact information.
Simpson later approached Neyer, Hammill and another person, later identified as Tyler R. Jackson, at a tire service business. After his patdown, Neyer reportedly removed his cell phone and a plastic bag containing a crystal substance.
Simpson then searched through Neyer's phone.
"During the search, text messages were located that discussed the transaction involving methamphetamine and the arranged deal that was to occur at Wal-mart where Neyer was located," Simpson said.
During an interview with police officers, Neyer stated that he contacted Hammill to inquire if he could obtain methamphetamine.
"Neyer stated that Hammill agreed to pick up Neyer and (that) Hammill would be the source of methamphetamine."
On June 27, the case involving Hammill and Neyer was dropped from the active docket of the Jefferson County Circuit Court because of the Supreme Court's finding.
A few years ago, the county handled another case involving cell phone searches.
In 2011, police found text messages on Edward L. Humes Jr.'s cell phone after his arrest that suggested he was involved in drug deals, according to the affidavit police filed on the case.
Simpson was the arresting officer on the case. He said during the trial that he had received information prior to the incident that Humes was a drug dealer. That information, along with the five plastic bags of cocaine, a large amount of cash, the bag Humes put in his mouth and the rolled-up dollar bill in the car found during the arrest led Simpson to believe Humes was dealing drugs.
Simpson said people often set up drug deals through cell phones and will call each other or send text messages. Simpson performed a preliminary search of the phone at the jail and saw contacts with names he believed were associated with dealing drugs.
Within hours of Humes' arrest, the phone received several text messages, which Simpson responded to in an attempt to set up additional drug deals. He also searched the call history and began looking through the phone's text message history.
Simpson said he looked through the phone messages - a search that could now be a violation of Humes' privacy - because they have become a common form of communication between people looking to make a drug deal.
"You don't send pigeons or letters to organize a deal. You make a phone call or you text," Simpson said during the trial.
Humes was convicted of possession of cocaine, possession of a synthetic cannabinoid and resisting law enforcement. Lewis said that, because Humes was not convicted on charges of intent to deliver, the case can't be re-examined because of the Supreme Court's ruling.
Lewis has met with area law enforcement officers making sure they know that a warrant is needed for cell phone searches going forward.
In the Court's written opinion, Roberts acknowledged that requiring warrants will slow down law enforcement.
"Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost."