In Florida, a common basis for a search of a suspect is called the search incident to an arrest. This allows a police officer to search a person who has been lawfully arrested. The main idea is that the person is being taken into custody by the police, and the police officer has a right to search that person for weapons for the officer’s safety. The police also search the person who has been arrested to inventory his/her belongings so they can be identified and returned to the suspect at a later date. In the past, this kind of search did not include the contents of a person’s cell phone which can have an abundance of information such as phone numbers, emails, photographs, websites visited and text messages.
In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida the defendant was arrested for possession of cocaine with intent to sell and possession of marijuana. When he was arrested, the police searched him as they normally do and found his cell phone. The police officer went on to search his cell phone without first getting a search warrant and saw an incriminating text message that indicated he planned on selling the cocaine. In upholding the search of the cell phone without a search warrant, the court cited a United States Supreme Court decision which said that police could search “containers” found on a person being arrested without “additional justification”, i.e. without a search warrant or even some evidence that the “container” actually contained evidence of the crime. The Florida court found that the cell phone was a container (just like a box or suitcase or other item that can contain documents and files) so it could be searched based solely on the fact that the defendant was in possession of it at the time he was arrested.