By on October 4, 2011

The California Court of Appeal on September 26 approved a police officer’s rifling through the cell phone belonging to someone who had just been pulled over for a traffic violation.

Reid Nottoli was pulled over on December 6, 2009 just before 2am as he was taking a female friend home. Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriff Steven Ryan said Nottoli’s silver Acura TL had been speeding on Highway 1. After speaking with Nottoli on the side of the road, Ryan suspected the 25-year-old was under the influence of a stimulant drug. His license was also expired, so Ryan said he would impound the vehicle. Nottoli asked if his car could stay parked on the side of the road, which was not heavily traveled and out of the way. Ryan refused so that he could conduct an “inventory” search prior to the towing.

Ryan testified that Nottoli’s driving was not impaired, and Nottoli was not arrested for driving under the influence. As he rifled through the belongings in the car, Ryan found a fully legal Glock 20 pistol with a Guncrafter Industries 50 GI conversion that should have been stored in the trunk of the vehicle. He also noticed Nottoli’s Blackberry Curve which, after it was turned on, displayed a photograph of a mask-wearing man holding two AR-15 rifles akimbo. Such rifles could have been legally possessed if owned before California’s assault weapons ban took effect. The photograph could also have been taken in another state, but Ryan took it was evidence of possible “gun-related crimes.”

Another deputy began reading all of Nottoli’s cell phone text messages, photographs and emails. Much later, Ryan obtained a search warrant to grab more information from the phone, and then a second search warrant was obtained for Nottoli’s home. Based on the information from the Blackberry, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team on December 16 raided the Nottoli home. They found a large cache of weapons, a marijuana growing operation and $15,000 in cash, which the law enforcement officials kept.

At trial, Nottoli argued the cell phone search was illegal, and a magistrate agreed to suppress the evidence as obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The appellate court, however, only agreed that the phone search was unlawful as part of the inventory process for the automobile. The judges insisted that the search was valid as part of the arrest process in which no warrant is needed to examine items related to officer safety and the preservation of evidence, as expanded by the 2009 US Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. Gant (view ruling).

“In sum, it is our conclusion that, after Reid [Nottoli] was arrested for being under the influence, it was reasonable to believe that evidence relevant to that offense might be found in his vehicle,” Justice Franklin D. Elia wrote for the three-judge panel. “Consequently, the deputies had unqualified authority under Gant to search the passenger compartment of the vehicle and any container found therein, including Reid’s cell phone. It is up to the US Supreme Court to impose any greater limits on officers’ authority to search incident to arrest.”

The court reversed the lower court’s order suppressing the evidence, but the decision was made solely to set legal precedent. Reid Nottoli died on September 4. A copy of the decision is available in a 120k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File California v. Nottoli (Court of Appeal, State of California, 9/26/2011)


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25 Comments on “California: Appeals Court Approves Cell Phone Search During Traffic Stop...”

  • avatar

    Why are criminals so bad at crime?

    If you’re going to make this sort of thing your living then put the effort in to do it well. Don’t speed with an expired license, certainly not while cranked on uppers, and definitely not while illegally transporting a handgun.

    Also, “masked man with multiple rifles” is a poor choice to have on your phone background. I’d recommend sleeping puppies, or cartoon penguins.

    • 0 avatar

      I have a baggie with a few Advil in it in my center storage console. I guess I should get rid of them, arthritis be damned. Also, I just gave up looking for my lost cell phone and got a new one this weekend. It has AT&T’s default photo on the display – 5 Blue Angels in formation. My obvious fascination with these instruments of death and destruction might suggest that I want to to overthrow the government. So toss my car and then my house.
      Don’t get me wrong – by this account, young Nottoli was a bum and a stupid criminal. The officer testified that he wasn’t arrested for DUI, yet the judge says otherwise. If there was no arrest, then the officers’ actions in this case are more of a threat to you than the bum’s.
      PS – I wouldn’t take any bets that the cops didn’t already know about Nottoli, but you still should do it right.

      • 0 avatar

        Don’t misunderstand, I don’t think that this search and ruling were good/justified/constitutional; and frankly I don’t care if this dingdong was growing pot and hoarding weapons. Everybody needs a hobby.

        I’m just surprised that people who choose to make a lifestyle out of breaking the law are so bad at minimizing the risk that comes along with it.

        How hard is it? Don’t draw attention to your driving, keep your paperwork in order, don’t give the cops any reason to even want to search your car, and make double-sure that if they do search it they’ll come up empty.

        I’ve been pulled over for speeding lots of times, and even as a young guy in a nice car I’ve never even once had a cop ask about searching me or my vehicle. Why? Because my paperwork is always correct and up to date, I’m always polite and straightforward, and I go out of my way to make sure it’s the most boring and not-suspicious traffic stop Officer Friendly has ever done.

        I never had anything illegal in the car when stopped, but my point is that I could have and it wouldn’t have been an issue because nothing looked suspicious enough to get the cop’s spider sense tingling.

        I can figure it out – why can’t actual criminals?

      • 0 avatar

        I’m just surprised that people who choose to make a lifestyle out of breaking the law are so bad at minimizing the risk that comes along with it.

        Presumably, we only hear about the stupid criminals because the smart ones don’t get caught.

      • 0 avatar

        In other words, bikegoesbaa, you aren’t stupid.

        Unlike young Nottoli.

        For the others downthread who discuss ways to encrypt or password the phone, they miss the point. You should not have to take that precaution. But scantily-clad hot-looking girls should be able to parade around bad neighborhoods without fear, too. I’m old and not up to date, so the only thing you’ll get off my 3G phone is a directory with my Mom’s phone number in it – I guess that’s my precaution.

      • 0 avatar

        I have a baggie with a few Advil in it in my center storage console. I guess I should get rid of them, arthritis be damned.

        No, you should have them in an original, marked container so there is no confusion. Also, “store Advil at room temperature, between 68 and 77 degrees F (20 and 25 degrees C). Avoid temperatures above 104 degrees F (40 degrees C).”

        If your car is anything like mine, it gets well above 104 in there.

    • 0 avatar

      Is it really that hard to fathom? I’d also say for a lot of cases, if they were smart, they probably wouldn’t have to turn to crime in the first place. And perhaps if they are smart but still turn to crime, they’re probably white-collar criminals. Or, don’t get caught, as mentioned above.

      On topic, I read the case notes, and I’m not so sure how I feel about it. On one hand, it didn’t sound like the actions the police took was unreasonable. On the other, peering into the contents of a phone sounds like a pretty gray area to me. It’s not really about the “officer’s safety” at that point, which, from what I can tell, is the reasoning for the inventory search.

  • avatar

    Password-protect your cell phone. A 4-digit PIN takes about 1.2 seconds to enter.

    • 0 avatar

      There are some pretty fascinating forensics tools that can read data from a cellphone regardless of whether it has a PIN or not.

      What you want is a phone that supports memory and datastore encryption. Generally, BlackBerries do, but you need to actually set it up.

    • 0 avatar

      A 4-digit PIN can be broken in a fairly short period of time.
      Also the legal opinions vary on whether you can be required to provide a password – some believe that providing a password is like testifying against yourself (which you are not required to do).

      • 0 avatar

        Certainly a 4-digit PIN is easily breakable — but not by a cop standing by the roadside.

      • 0 avatar

        Also the legal opinions vary on whether you can be required to provide a password

        Where did you hear that? I’m fairly certain you are under no obligation to answer any questions – you have the right to remain silent. Indeed, I have it on good authority that a very large percentage of criminals would have walked, if they could just keep their mouth shut.

      • 0 avatar

        Certainly a 4-digit PIN is easily breakable — but not by a cop standing by the roadside

        There are roadside units that completely obviate the need to brute-force a PIN and require little, if any, forensics training.

  • avatar
    dvp cars

    …….I can’t stand the suspense………what did he die of?

  • avatar

    We could run all our cars on the energy from the founding fathers spinning in their graves.

  • avatar

    Ryan suspected the 25-year-old was under the influence of a stimulant drug.

    The drug to which they are presumably referring is a powerful appetite suppressant…

  • avatar

    A vaccine to prevent craving/addiction to drugs can’t come soon enough.

    Eliminate half the crime and all the corruption that vasts amounts of drug money brings, since most people are too afraid to legalize it and channel the money away from the illicit side of it.

  • avatar

    Half of his problems stem from gun laws of constitutionally questionable nature, the rest of his problems come from being unable to face life sober.

  • avatar

    Why the picture of Chaz Bono at the top of this?

    • 0 avatar

      Because Sonny would have disapproved of cell phone searches?

      I’d boot mine into recovery mode and wipe it…just restore it again later.

      My work phone is the property of the healthcare organization for which I work. For me to turn it over without a subpoena would be a HIPAA violation and expose me to Federal prosecution (well, possibly).

  • avatar

    What the hell has happened to America? That phone should have been off limits. I’m disgusted.

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