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Md. high court sets limits on smartphone search warrants

Search warrants of smartphones may not be so broad as to allow detectives to scour them for information beyond that related to the suspected criminal activity, Maryland’s top court ruled last week in its first foray into constitutional limitations involving the omnipresent devices.

As with searches of low-tech items and places, a smartphone warrant must state with “particularity” the information sought and where it would likely be found in order to comply with the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches, the Court of Appeals stated in its 7-0 decision.

For example, the warrant should limit the search to texts or videos if the crime-related information is expected to be found there, thus avoiding an unconstitutional general search of the phone and its many applications that often contain the owner’s highly personal information, the high court said.

“The particularity requirement is arguably of even greater importance in the context of computers and smartphones than in it in the physical world (of houses and containers), given the ability of smartphones to store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures or hundreds of videos, and of computers to store much more still,” Judge Jonathan Biran wrote for the Court of Appeals.

“In submitting and ruling upon every application for a cellphone search warrant, the affiant (requesting the warrant) and the issuing judge must think about how to effectively limit the discretion of the searching officers so as not to intrude on the phone owner’s privacy interests any more than reasonably necessary to locate the evidence for which there is probable cause to search,” Biran added. “Ultimately, the key point is that a search warrant for a cellphone must be specific enough so that the officers will only search for the items that are related to the probable cause that justifies the search in the first place.”

The ruling followed the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Riley v. California that police need a warrant to search a smartphone after an arrest. Riley, however, left open a question regarding the level of specificity required in a smartphone search warrant.

The Court of Appeals answered by invalidating as too general a warrant that permitted Prince George’s County officers to search for “all information,” including text messages, emails, voicemails, phone calls, pictures, videos, cellular site locations and “any other data stored or maintained” in the phone of a suspected armed robber after his arrest.

The high court, however, upheld the officers’ search of Anthony Richardson’s phone, saying they had a good-faith belief the warrant was valid and acted reasonably in light of the warrant’s accompanying affidavit, which stated they were searching for evidence related to the robbery.

“Until today, this court has not analyzed whether a cellphone search warrant that allows officers to search an entire phone for evidence of a particular crime satisfies the particularity requirement,” Biran wrote.

“In this opinion, we have stated that, in this case and with respect to the vast majority of Maryland cellphone search warrants, the answer to that question is ‘no,’ ” Biran added. “But we cannot fault the officers who executed this search warrant for thinking that the answer was ‘yes.’ ”

The high court rendered its decision in upholding Richardson’s conditional plea of guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery and carrying a handgun after the weapon and smartphone were found in a backpack he dropped and ran from and which was instantly recovered by a high school resource officer in Temple Hills. In pleading guilty, Richardson retained the right to challenge the constitutionality of the search of his backpack, as well as the smartphone.

Having found the phone search valid, the high court also upheld the warrantless search of the backpack, saying Richardson had “abandoned” it when he dropped it and ran.

“’By abandoning property, the owner relinquishes the legitimate expectation of privacy that triggers Fourth Amendment protection,’” Biran wrote, quoting from the Court of Appeals’ 1996 decision in Stanberry v. State. “In sum, despite Richardson’s initial reach for his backpack after it fell, we hold that Richardson relinquished all reasonable expectation of privacy in the backpack when he fled the scene.”

Michael T. Torres, Richardson’s appellate lawyer, said Wednesday that he is “still reviewing the decision.”  Torres is an assistant Maryland public defender.

The Maryland attorney general’s office declined to comment on the court’s ruling. According to court papers, officer Myron Young was attempting to break up a fight among 30 students in the back parking lot of Crossland High School on Sept. 28, 2018, when Richardson stood up amid the melee and his backpack fell to the ground.

Young and Richardson reached for the bag, which the officer snagged.

Richardson, who was not a Crossland student, ran from the campus and Young opened the bag, in which he found the gun and smartphone. The search of the phone revealed text messages in which Richardson discussed having participated in the armed robbery of a man earlier that day.

Richardson entered his conditional guilty plea in Prince George’s County Circuit Court.

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld the guilty plea last September, saying Richardson had abandoned his backpack and that the warrant for the smartphone was sufficiently specific regarding the items to be searched.

Richardson then sought review by the Court of Appeals.

The high court rendered its decision in Anthony J. Richardson v. State of Maryland, No. 46, September Term 2021.