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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds Any Search of Cellphone Requires Warrant

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania made it clear: “If a member of law enforcement wishes to obtain information from a cellphone, get a warrant.” The Court held that turning on, as well as digging into a cellphone to obtain its number, constituted a search each that required a warrant, tossing all evidence against a murder suspect.

Michael Toll called 911 and said he had been shot. Police arrived to find Toll sitting in a car with a cellphone in his hand. He told police “Jeff” shot him. In Toll’s cellphone was a contact named “Jeff” who had been called shortly before the shooting. Toll died from his wounds.

In an unrelated incident, police arrested I. Dean Fulton the same day Toll died. Upon arrest, police seized a smartphone from Fulton. Detective John Harkins of the Philadelphia Police Department turned on Fulton’s phone and searched the phone’s menu to find its number.

It was then that Harkins linked Fulton to Toll as the “Jeff” Toll called before he was murdered. Harkins also left the phone on and monitored the incoming calls and texts, even answering a call on the phone from a person who agreed to meet with him. This person told Harkin that Fulton was known as “Lil Jeff,” and that he was her heroin supplier. Fulton was charged with murder and several gun violations.

Fulton moved to suppress the evidence obtained by Harkins’ warrantless searches of his phone, but his motion was denied. The trial court concluded that merely powering up a cellphone to obtain its number was a “minimally invasive search” and that Fulton had “no reasonable expectation of privacy in incoming calls.” Fulton was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison for third-degree murder.

On appeal to the superior court, Fulton argued again that the warrantless searches of his cellphone required suppression of all evidence obtained by the searches, relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014), which stated that a modern cellphone contains “vast” personal data, requiring a search warrant. The superior court rejected Fulton’s argument, ruling that the search was “minimal” and that the error, in light of the other evidence, was “harmless.” Fulton filed a petition in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for allowance of appeal, which the Court granted.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court easily dispatched the lower courts’ reasoning and decisions. The Court explained that the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Riley is dispositive of whether the warrantless searches of Fulton’s cellphone were in violation of the Fourth Amendment. According to the Court, the “rule created by Riley/Wurie is exceeding simple: if a member of law enforcement wishes to obtain information from a cell phone, get a warrant. The failure to do so here violated Fulton’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.…”  

The Court further explained that under Riley there is “no exception for what police or courts may deem a ‘minimally invasive’ search, as the trial court in the case at bar found, or a ‘minimal intrusion,’ as found by the Superior Court.” The rule announced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Riley is clear. Absent an applicable exception to the warrant requirement, “any search of a cell phone requires a warrant,” instructed the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

After concluding that the searches were unconstitutional, the Court turned to the issue of suppression of evidence. The Court determined that the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963), resolves the question in favor of Fulton.

In Wong Sun, the U.S. Supreme Court held that any evidence obtained in an unlawful search may not be used in any respect. This includes evidence and witnesses that were the “indirect product” of the illegal search. The unlawful searches of Fulton’s cellphone resulted in both direct evidence and indirect product derived from the direct evidence. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that both types of evidence obtained as a result of the illegal searches of Fulton’s cellphone constitute fruits of the poisonous tree and must be suppressed.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the superior court and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: Commonwealth v. Fulton, 179 A.3d 475 (Pa. 2018). 

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