United States v. Murphy – Case Brief Summary (Federal Court)

In United States v. Murphy, 552 F.3d 405 (4th Cir. 2009), the defendant was the front seat passenger in a car traveling northbound "at a high rate of speed" on Interstate 81 in Wythe County, Virginia. Id. at 407. When the vehicle was stopped by a Virginia State Trooper, both the vehicle's driver and the defendant informed the trooper that they had left their respective driver's licenses at home; the third passenger provided a counterfeit out-of-state driver's license.

Because the defendant provided the trooper with multiple names for himself, none of which could be confirmed, "he was arrested for obstruction of justice" and his cell phone was seized. Id. at 408.

Following the arrest of the two other occupants in the vehicle, officers "began an inventory search of the vehicle at the scene," which was subsequently completed at the local Sheriff's Department Id.

While searching inside the vehicle's trunk, officers discovered a "laptop bag containing $14,790 in U.S. currency, which was packaged in stacks containing equal amounts of money, folded and arranged to offset one another, and then banded with rubber bands." Id.

The defendant, admitting that the money was his, stated that "he was planning to use it to purchase shoes and clothing in New York for stores that he planned to operate in Alabama." Id. at 408-09.

The defendant's seized cell phone, as well as other cell phones seized from the vehicle, was examined further at the Sheriff's Department, where it was logged as evidence because it "contained possible incriminating information." Id. at 409.

At some point thereafter, the evidence, including the defendant's cell phone, was turned over to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Id. at 409.

Nearly two months after the defendant was arrested, a DEA agent examined the contents of the defendant's cell phone, which contained text messages from an individual who later identified the defendant as his drug supplier. Id.

On appeal, the defendant challenged the constitutionality of the warrantless search of his cell phone. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held: "The need for the preservation of evidence justifies the retrieval of call records and text messages from a cell phone or pager without a warrant during a search incident to arrest." Murphy, 552 F.3d at 411.

In explaining its holding, the court noted that officers are typically unable to determine "whether the text messages and other information stored on a cell phone will be preserved or be automatically deleted." Id. Due to the "volatile nature" of cell phone information and the "manifest need . . . to preserve evidence," it concluded that cell phones may be searched incident to arrest. Id.