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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Incriminating Cell Phone Search Constitutional

A Fairfield County probation officer broke a state law when searching the cell phone of a man on community control, but did not violate his constitutional rights. Because the man’s rights were not infringed, the child pornography found on the phone could be used as evidence to convict him, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

A Supreme Court majority found that Daniel Campbell consented to having his “property” searched as a term of early release from prison, and that property included his cell phone. The Court reversed a Fifth District Court of Appeals decision, which had ruled the evidence from his cell phone should have been suppressed and not used to try him on several felonies.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice R. Patrick DeWine explained that there was no Fourth Amendment violation because Campbell had agreed that probation officers could search him as a condition of his probation. The probation officer did exceed her authority under an Ohio statute when she searched Campbell without reasonable suspicion. But unlike many violations of the Fourth Amendment, a violation of the Ohio statute in question did not require suppression of evidence.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fischer, and Michael P. Donnelly joined the opinion.

Justice Jennifer Brunner concurred in judgment only, writing that she does not believe the officer violated the law. However, she did express concern about “the manner and circumstances” in which the trial court obtained Campbell’s consent for searches.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Melody Stewart wrote that the Ohio and U.S. Supreme Courts have determined that cell phones should be treated differently than general property, and that the consent form Campbell signed did not clearly indicate consent to search his cell phone. Because of the lack of clarity, the search was unconstitutional, she concluded.

Child Pornography Revealed in Random Search
Campbell was sentenced to prison for robbery when he applied for early judicial release in 2017. As  a condition of serving community control for the remainder of his sentence, he agreed to a number of terms and conditions set by the trial court, including the search of “my person, my property, my vehicle, and my residence at any time without a warrant.”

In 2018, Campbell’s probation officer conducted a random search of his home. The officer was training new probation officers and had planned to reduce Campbell’s level of supervision if all went well with the search. The officer did not suspect Campbell was in violation of his community control.

During the search, the officer found Campbell’s cell phone and searched the content. She found child pornography. This led to the seizure of numerous other electronic devices. Campbell was charged with nine felony offenses.

Suppression of Search Evidence Sought
Facing the felony charges, Campbell asked the Fairfield County Common Pleas Court to suppress the evidence, arguing it violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the officer searched without reasonable suspicion that Campbell had committed a crime. The trial court rejected the request, ruling the search was constitutional because Campbell consented to the search.

Campbell pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to seven years in prison. He appealed the ruling on the suppression of the evidence to the Fifth District Court of Appeals. The Fifth District reversed the trial court’s decision, finding the search violated R.C. 2951.02(A), which allows a probation officer to conduct a search of a person on probation without a search warrant only if there are “reasonable grounds to believe” there is a violation of the community control terms or a law.

The Fairfield County Prosecutor’s Office appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Supreme Court Analyzed Law and Constitution
Justice DeWine explained that prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions made clear that those on probation or parole have a lower expectation of privacy than a law-abiding individual, and suspicionless searches of such individuals do not violate the Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches. Campbell was on probation (or community control as it is called in Ohio) the opinion noted. In exchange for early release from prison, he was to abide by the conditions and restrictions of his community control agreement.

“Thus, we have little difficulty finding there is no Fourth Amendment violation when a probation officer conducts a suspicionless search pursuant to a consent-to-search provision agreed to as a condition of community control,” the opinion stated.

Campbell argued that his consent to search did not include his cell phone. The Court disagreed, stating that he consented to a search of his “property,” which is “something that inarguably encompasses his cellphone.”

The Court did find the probation officer violated R.C. 2951.02(A) by searching Campbell without reasonable grounds to believe he was violating the law. But, the Court wrote, a violation of the statute does not have the same consequences as a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

“A plain reading of R.C. 2951.02(A),” Justice DeWine explained, “reveals no such legislative mandate to impose an exclusionary remedy for a violation of the statute’s reasonable-grounds requirement.”

“Absent such a legislative mandate, this court is without authority to write an exclusionary remedy into the statute,” the opinion stated.

Because the law did not indicate the evidence should be suppressed, the trial court was correct to reject Campbell’s request, the Court concluded.

Blanket Consent Form Raises Concerns, Concurrence Maintained
Justice Brunner wrote that Campbell did not challenge the concept that the blanket consent form he signed violated his Fourth Amendment rights. She noted the “consent” may be questionable because a prison inmate who is granted judicial release faces a choice between providing consent to warrantless searches at any time or most likely returning to prison for not consenting.

Because he did consent, the law requiring a probation officer to have reasonable grounds to search did not apply to his situation, she maintained. Justice Brunner also noted Campbell did not question whether the search violated Article 1, Section 14 of the Ohio Constitution, which has its own limits on searches without warrants.

Cell Phone Improperly Searched, Dissent Stated
Justice Stewart wrote the majority relied on a broad interpretation of “property,” even though “the law has routinely treated searches of cell phones differently than searches of personal property in general.”

She wrote that consent-to-search provisions included as part of probation conditions are valid if they are clear and unambiguous. The generic form Campbell signed did not “clearly and unambiguously include an agreement to allow the search of the contents of his cell phone.”

“Without such a clear consent-to-search condition, Campbell still retained an expectation of privacy in the contents of his cell phone that society recognizes as legitimate,” the dissent stated.

Justice Stewart wrote she would affirm the Fifth District’s decision and suggested that future probation agreements should include clear terms regarding the right to search the “distinct category of cell phones.”

2020-1187.State v. Campbell, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-3626.

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