Wednesday, September 28, 2011

People v. Nottoli (Cal. Ct. App. - Sept. 26, 2011)

Nope, nope, nope.

I agree with the Court of Appeal that there was probable cause to arrest Reid Nottoli for driving under the influence.  He had all the classic signs of stimulant intoxication.  I admit that it could have been from all those empty bottles of energy drinks strewn around his vehicle.  But I think it a reasonable conclusion that what he was under was actually illegal.  Which was, in fact, the case.  So I'm on board for that.

I'm also okay with a search of the vehicle incident to his arrest.  Now, I know full well why they're actually doing it.  To search for drugs.  Which is why, contrary to the department's policy, they didn't turn the DUI case over to the CHP.  Instead, the police officer got a "tip" from his sergeant -- who told him to call him over the phone rather than over the police radio -- that they suspected Reid of being involved with drugs.  Which meant the police were keenly interested in this guy, and this gave them an excuse to search his car.  Even though Reid was totally fine having the car left there (it was extremely close to his home) and there was no actual reason why they had to search the vehicle.  Especially since Reid was handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser and had no access to anything in the vehicle.

But the officer's subjective motivations aren't the test.  They had the right to search, so I can be on board for that as well.  At least under existing precedent.

But what the officers can't do, in my view, is to turn on the guy's smart phone and page through the suspect's e-mail, text messages and photographs for ten full minutes.  That's an unwarranted invasion.  That, the court below found, was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.  And it was totally right.  Notwithstanding the fact that the Court of Appeal here decides to the contrary.

This is essentially a general search.  Yes, in theory, you might find evidence relevant to a DUI in someone's e-mails or photographs.  After all, who knows?  Maybe there's a movie that shows them snorting cocaine and getting in the car that night?  We're just checking, right?

But that theory justifies virtually an unlimited abrogation of the Fourth Amendment.  Especially when, as here, you're permitting the police to investigate and read the vast majority of the writings and other communications that individuals make in the modern era.  On that same theory, getting busted for a DUI would permit police to search your home, right?  Read your diary.  Look through all your pictures.  You might have pictures and diary entries in there that prove that you're a cokehead too, after all.  So that counts as probable cause too?

This just goes too far.  It's not right.  It's one thing to say that police can look through a car for weapons or things like that when you're busting someone.  It's another to permit them to turn on your laptop -- or smart phone -- and peruse it for anything they might feel interested in looking at.

Bad policy.  Bad law.