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Exigency – Detention of Personal Property of non-Custodial Suspect: Cell Phone Displays Evidence of Drug Trafficking

State v. Jermichael James Carroll, 2008 WI App 161, affirmed on other grounds2010 WI 8
For Carroll: Michael K. Gould, SPD, Milwaukee Appellate

Issue/Holding:  Continued possession of Carroll’s cell phone justified, though Carroll not in custody. Expectation of privacy in cell phone analogous to that attending “closed container” such as luggage, as to which detention of container must be supported by probable cause to believe it contains evidence of crime and by exigent circumstances, ¶¶25-27

¶29      Here, Belsha legally viewed the marijuana image; we consider that fact along with his testimony that he knew, based on his training and experience, that drug traffickers frequently personalize their cell phones with images of themselves with items acquired through drug activity. Furthermore, it is those personalized cell phones on which drug traffickers commonly make many of their transactions. Carroll did not introduce evidence suggesting that Belsha’s testimony in that regard was inaccurate or not credible, and we see no reason to discount it. We are satisfied, under all of the circumstances here, that that information, taken as a whole, gave Belsha probable cause to believe that the phone contained evidence of illegal drug activity.

¶32      Given that Belsha had probable cause to believe that a search of the phone would produce evidence of illegal drug activity, his continued possession of the phone while he sought a warrant was permissible. The same reasons that permitted Belsha to seize the phone in the first instance permitted him to continue to possess it in the short time after Carroll was secured. Exigent circumstances further justify that continued possession. Had Belsha returned the phone to Carroll and released him, Carroll could have deleted incriminating images and data, such as phone numbers and calling records stored in the phone. Hence, Belsha’s continued possession of the phone was permissible.

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