DENVER • Aurora police didn’t violate a murder suspect’s constitutional rights by searching the contents of his cellphone, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The ruling reaches beyond the murder case of Shaun R. Davis into the challenges courts face in handling new technologies.
Davis gave police his pass code so they could call his girlfriend after he was arrested and get her to retrieve his car. Once they had the code, police got a search warrant to forage through the cellphone. They used the code to unlock the phone’s contents for evidence.
Davis argued that the search violated his Fourth Amendment privacy rights. He said the search went too far beyond his permission.
The Colorado Supreme Court disagreed.
“Once an individual discloses the digits of his passcode to law enforcement, we conclude that it is unreasonable to expect those digits to be private from the very party to whom he disclosed them, regardless of any limitations he might be said to have implicitly placed upon the disclosure,” the court wrote in its ruling. “Because Davis had no legitimate expectation of privacy in the digits of his passcode after providing them to [the officer], law enforcement’s use of that passcode was not a search protected by the Fourth Amendment.”
Police arrested Davis at his job site a year ago after a woman and man showed up at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora with gunshot wounds. The woman was pronounced dead at the hospital. The man was in serious condition.
Police traced the shooting to Davis, who had a record of violent crime convictions. He was arrested on suspicion of first-degree murder.
The trial court agreed with Davis that he gave his code to police solely to call his girlfriend. The permission did not extend to a generalized search, the trial court said.
Thus police violated Davis’ Fourth Amendment rights, and information they found could not be used as evidence to convict him, that court found.
It was overruled, however. The Supreme Court ruling says: “By considering the different ways the search of Davis’ phone could have taken place, the [trial] court seemingly failed to heed the circumstances under which the search did take place. Here, the police had a valid search warrant and Davis’ voluntarily given passcode. The passcode gave the police the ability to access the contents of Davis’ phone, and the warrant gave them permission to do so.”
The case is unusual because Davis volunteered his passcode to police, said Scott Robinson, a Denver criminal defense attorney.
“That’s not something that happens in a typical case,” Robinson said. “It is one aspect of the evolving law involving the search of cellphones and computers. … the law in general always plays catch-up to technology.”
Said Ian P. Farrell, associate professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, “The import of the ruling certainly extends beyond Mr. Davis’ individual case. This case reinforces the importance of what should be a fundamental principle for every citizen: If you are at all suspected of committing a crime, never provide the police with information without first consulting with an attorney.
“You may think you are only giving the police permission to do one thing,” Farrell said, “only to later find out — when it is too late — that the information can be used for an entirely different purpose.”
A spokeswoman for the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s office, which represented the police in the Supreme Court case, declined to comment.
“The Shaun Davis case is still open in Arapahoe County,” said Vikki Migoya, spokeswoman for the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which represented the police in the Supreme Court case.
“It would be inappropriate for anyone from this office to talk outside the courtroom about an open case — even tangentially.”