The Cell Phone Search - Smallwood V. State of Florida

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Case Facts

One morning the quite town of Florida City was shocked to hear that a robbery had taken place at Seminole Bank. The robber, armed with a gun, held bank workers hostage until he’d collected $20,000 in cash.

The robber had been wearing a mask so the witnesses were unable to identify him. Florida City is a small town where everyone is well acquainted with each other. Several witness stated they recognized the robber’s voice and thought it was Mr. Smallwood.

Mr. Smallwood agreed to meet with police officers at a Popeye’s Chicken restaurant to discuss the case. Based on the witness statements and other evidence, he was arrested and handcuffed. The police searched his “person” for weapons and evidence. The police found a cell phone in his pants pocket. One officer then looked “in” the phone to verify two things: 1) if it was Mr. Smallwood’s phone and 2) to determine if it contained any pictures or anything else that might be evidence to the crime. The police found photos relating to the arrested crime that included Mr. Smallwood with a gun and large amounts of cash.

Trial Court Proceedings & Rulings

At trial, Mr. Smallwood’s attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence (keep it from being used at trial) that was found in Mr. Smallwood’s cell phone. His attorneys argued that his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures was violated when the police searched the photos on his cell phone without a warrant.

The motion was denied by the trial court judge and the photos were allowed to be used as evidence against Mr. Smallwood at trial. The trial court reasoned that the cell phone is similar to a container in the defendant’s vehicle at the time of the arrest and ruled that the search of the cell phone was allowed. Mr. Smallwood was convicted of armed robbery and possession of a firearm and sentenced to 65 years in prison.

The Appeal

Mr. Smallwood appealed the trial court’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment to the District Court of Appeal. The District Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court and ruled that the search was valid.

Mr. Smallwood is now asking the Florida Supreme Court to consider his arguments and reverse the decision of the lower court.

Constitutional Question the Justices Must Answer

Did the police violate the Fourth Amendment when they searched, without a warrant, through pictures contained in a cell phone that was on a person
when arrested?

Resources & Background Materials

Based on the Florida Supreme Court Case Number, SC11-1130, Cedric Tyrone Smallwood v. State of Florida