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Ruling of Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge affirmed

Sinclair v. State.

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland recently held that the limited, immediate search of an arrestee’s cell phone, pursuant to a lawful arrest, did not violate his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.  The Appellant was convicted in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County of various charges stemming from a carjacking in Temple Hills, Maryland.  The record reveals that minutes after the Appellant’s lawful arrest, the on-duty officer conducted a limited search of the cell phone found on his person.[1]  During the Appellant’s Circuit Court trial, defense counsel moved, in limine, to suppress the evidence seized from his phone.[2] The Circuit Court for Prince George’s County denied this motion, concluding that the search was valid incident to a lawful arrest.

On appeal, the Maryland Court struck down the Appellant’s claims, citing to a decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.[3]  The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland balanced the Fourth Amendment rights of suspects against the need of law enforcement to preserve evidence when faced with nuances presented by modern technology.[4]  Here, the Court concluded that, because the search was close in time to the arrest and the officer “merely opened the appellant’s cell phone” to find the evidence on the screensaver, the search was valid under the Fourth Amendment.    

The Maryland Court also held that the introduction of other crimes evidence is proper, when the probative value outweighs any unfair prejudice that may arise.  Here, the Court reasoned that because both parties stipulated (and the jury knew) that Appellant was previously found guilty of a disqualifying crime, the introduction of other crimes evidence[5] related to this stipulation was not overly prejudicial.  Furthermore, use of this evidence was properly admissible for purposes of impeachment because it was related to a contested issue in the case.

[1] The evidence seized from the phone consisted of pictures found on Appellant’s screensaver which were later confirmed to be images of the stolen car.

[2] Defense counsel asserted that his Fourth Amendment rights protecting him against an unreasonable search and seizure when the arresting officer did not first obtain a warrant to search his phone.

[3] See United States v. Murphy, 552 F.3d 405, 411 (4th Cir. 2009) (holding “The need for the preservation of evidence justifies the retrieval of call records and text messages from a cell phone or pager without a warrant during a search incident to arrest.”).

[4] The Court made note that, because evidence, such as text messages, pictures, and the like, can be erased so easily and quickly, the need to preserve such evidence justifies the search of cell phones pursuant to a lawful arrest.

[5] At issue was a recorded phone call Appellant made to his probation officer.  At the trial level, defense counsel argued that the phone call’s prejudicial effect outweighed its probative value.




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