Cops Free to Search Contents of Abandoned Mobile Phone

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By Lance J. Rogers

July 29 — A motorist who fled on foot after being stopped by the police forfeited any privacy interest he had in the mobile phone that was left behind in the stolen car, a divided Washington Supreme ruled July 28 ( State v. Samalia, 2016 BL 244174, Wash., No. 91532-6, 7/28/16 ).

The case is significant because it makes clear that the special constitutional protections afforded mobile phones that are seized incident to an arrest disappear if the owner abandons the phone while running away from the police.

“When an individual voluntarily abandons an item, not as a facet of modern communication but to elude the police, that individual voluntarily exposes that item—and all information that it may contain—to anyone who may come across it,” Justice Charles K. Wiggins wrote for the 6-3 majority.

Left Behind

Mobile phones and the vast amount of personal information they contain enjoy special constitutional protection that almost always requires police to get a search warrant before they examine the phone's contents, the court said.

However, that doesn't mean traditional exceptions to the warrant requirement—like the common law rule of abandonment—don't apply, the court added.

“Cell phones are no different in this respect than for any other item; the abandonment doctrine applies to all personal property equally,” the court said.

The police stopped Adrian Samalia on suspicion that he was driving a stolen car. When Samalia fled the scene on foot, the police seized the phone and other items he left behind and learned Samalia's identity after calling and arranging to meet one of the “contacts” listed in the phone.

Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen and Justices Charles W. Johnson, Susan Owens, Mary E. Fairhurst and Justice Steven C. González concurred.

In a dissent joined by Justices Debra L. Stephens and Sheryl Gordon McCloud, Justice Mary I. Yu argued that a person who leaves a mobile phone unattended doesn't forfeit the right to keep private the wealth of private information that can be accessed through the phone. “Common law doctrines limiting constitutional privacy protections cannot be applied mechanically to new technology,” Yu wrote.

The Washington Appellate Project represented Samalia. The Yakima County Prosecutor's Office represented the state.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lance J. Rogers in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at

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