Armed-robbery conviction thrown out when court rules Jacksonville police illegally searched suspect's cell phone

May 8, 2013

The Florida Supreme Court has overturned the conviction and 50-year sentence of a Jacksonville man, ruling that police illegally went through pictures on the defendant's cell phone without his permission or seeking a warrant. Police should have gotten a Duval County warrant before searching the phone of Cedric Smallwood, accused of pointing a handgun at a convenience store owner and stealing $15,000 and another handgun from the store, according to a report in the Florida Times-Union. After Smallwood was arrested, officers went through his phone and found pictures of a gun and stacks of money, the newspaper reported.

During Smallwood's trial in this Jacksonville Gun Crimes Case, his Duval County criminal defense attorney objected to the use of the photos because police didn't seek a warrant, but the judge allowed the photos, the newspaper reported. One appellate court agreed with the photo search, saying a cell phone was no different than a wallet or closed container found on a person, both items police are legally allowed to search.
But the Supreme Court saw it differently. The ruling is significant, especially in a digital age where people rely on mobile phones and devices for storing all types of information, including banking records and personal calendars. In many cases, the mobile phone is almost a personal computer, which police would need a warrant in order to search. Search warrants specify what law enforcement is looking for and can legally look for when searching a computer. Police do not have carte blanche access to pilfer through whatever they choose on a computer, The Supreme Court ruling makes sense in expanding that protection to mobile devices, which in many cases have just as much, if not more, information stored on them.

This does not mean police won't be able to touch or look at cell phones. It just means they must get a warrant first and lay out exactly what they are looking to find, and how that would directly affect the case they are working on. Media reports have not said whether the state intends to try Smallwood again in this Jacksonville Gun Crimes case. He was first arrested in 2008 and has been behind bars since - in the county jail until his conviction and then in state prison. He is now back in the Duval County Jail awaiting arraignment on this charge, the newspaper reported. Jacksonville armed robbery is a first-degree felony punishable by up to life in prison, so it would be difficult to imagine the state not aggressively pursuing the case again. But any case will have to proceed without the photos police obtained from Smallwood's cell phone. The Supreme Court ruling is definitely significant for Smallwood in his Jacksonville Gun Crimes Case and is also a win for suspects going forward in the state of Florida.

If you or a loved one needs a criminal defense attorney in Jacksonville or the surrounding area, call The Mussallem Law Firm at (904) 365-5200 for a FREE CONSULTATION. Our Jacksonville Gun Crimes Attorney, Victoria "Tori" Mussallem, is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.