7th Circuit: Warrantless seizure of parolee’s cellphone data justified

A parolee’s Fourth Amendment rights weren’t violated when police extracted data from his cellphone, which contained child pornography, after discovering methamphetamine hidden behind the back cover of the phone’s case, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed.

Henry Wood served time in Indiana state prison for meth-related offenses. In 2018, he was released on parole under enumerated conditions, including the condition that his “person and residence or property under my control may be subject to reasonable search” for reasonable cause.

About three months after being released, Wood violated his parole by failing to report to his supervising officer. The Indiana Parole Board issued an arrest warrant, and parole agents arrested Wood at his home in North Judson.

During the frisk, one of the agents noticed Wood repeatedly turning toward his cellphone, which was lying on a “junk pile.” The agents picked up the cellphone and handed it to one of his colleagues.

The agent felt something “lumpy” on the phone’s case and removed the back cover to find what he believed to be meth, which Wood later confirmed. A later search of the home revealed syringes and other drug paraphernalia. Wood was then arrested for possession of meth, and parole agents seized his phone as evidence.

Seven days after Wood’s arrest, an investigator for the Indiana Department of Correction performed a warrantless search of Wood’s cellphone by extracting its stored data, revealing child pornography. The investigator forwarded this information to a special agent of the FBI, who obtained a search‐and‐seizure warrant for Wood’s cellphone and its contents.

A federal grand jury indicted Wood for both receiving and possessing child pornography. Before the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Wood moved to suppress the data extracted from his cellphone. He argued the state investigator’s warrantless search of his cellphone violated Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373 (2014).

The district court disagreed, pointing to United States v. Knights, 534 U.S. 112 (2001), and Samson v. California, 547 U.S. 843 (2006).

Following the denial of his motion to suppress, Wood entered a conditional guilty plea. He pleaded guilty to the receiving charge in Count 1 of the indictment, Count 2 was dismissed, and he reserved the right to appeal the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress.

The 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial, finding parolee status diminishes one’s privacy expectations.

“Wood was unambiguously informed of his parole conditions, which permitted searches based on less than probable cause. So, any privacy interest Wood retained in his cellphone was greatly diminished,” Judge Michael Brennan wrote for the 7th Circuit, citing Samson. “… Given Wood’s diminished expectation of privacy and Indiana’s strong governmental interests, the search of Wood’s cellphone was reasonable. In reaching this decision, we align our law with that of the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits.”

While additional cases were argued by Wood, the 7th Circuit maintained that “(t)his case is controlled by Knights and Samson, not Riley. On balance, Indiana’s interests outweigh Wood’s privacy expectation as a parolee whose person, residence, and property were subject to search. So the warrantless search of Wood’s cellphone was reasonable.”

The case is United States of America v. Henry E. Wood, 20-2974.

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