In a relatively-unsurprising re-affirmation of recent SCOTUS caselaw, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled 6-0 in Commonwealth v. Fulton that a warrantless search of a cell phone is unconstitutional and must be suppressed. SCOPA also ruled that the search violates Article I, section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which places this ruling out of the reach of any changes in Federal search jurisprudence in the future.
The Philadelphia Police (who once arrested one of the world’s first serial killers), after arresting I. Dean Fulton on gun charges, kept his cell phone separate from the other evidence and, without obtaining a warrant, monitored incoming calls to the phone, and answered them. After meeting with Heather Warrington, who called the phone looking to buy heroin, homicide detectives were able to discover a wealth of physical evidence which, along with Warrington’s testimony, led to Fulton’s conviction for a recent murder.
Majority by Donohue: Riley v. California already decided this, and we agree
In a unanimous opinion, Justice Donohue rules for the 6-0 majority that SCOTUS’s decision in Riley v. California controls the search of any cell phone, and that the officer’s actions in this case violated that ruling. The Court further rules that such a search is clearly unreasonable, and should be seen as a violation of the Commonwealth’s Constitution as well. Rejecting the Superior Court’s ruling that the “specific intrusion complained of” in the search in this case was “minimal,” the Court noted that Riley established a per se rule against cell phone searches without a warrant.
The more interesting analysis is that of harmless error. The Court notes that a witness’s testimony is not suppressed as often as physical evidence because a witness may choose to come forward on his own, and may not need to be discovered via a warrantless search. To put it differently, it is more likely that a witness may come forward and therefore be attenuated from the illegal search than discovered documents or hard evidence. A major factor to consider, then, is whether the witness would likely have come forward voluntarily or not.
In this case, the witness was a heroin addict, and unlikely to be cooperative with police or to come forward voluntarily. The police only discovered her existence by monitoring incoming calls to the cell phone, and were unlikely to discover her otherwise. Therefore, the witness’s testimony is suppressed, along with all the hard evidence discovered as a result of the search.
Conclusion: Could have been a summary reversal
The Court’s opinion is well-reasoned, and a minor victory for privacy advocates. This case was not difficult; SCOTUS caselaw was clear on the point, and the Commonwealth’s argument that a warrantless search that led to all of the evidence in the case was “harmless” was untenable. The Court probably could have issued a summary reversal for proceedings consistent with Riley, but perhaps wanted to flesh out the nature of “harmless error” in the context of a witness’s testimony.
Finally, worth noting, in footnote 19, the Court notes that Fulton did not litigate whether harmless error can be found by a court sua sponte, and leave the question “unsettled.” This invitation for a challenge to the Superior Court’s consideration of harmless error sua sponte should be noted by the appellate bar for future challenges.