SC: Search of cell phone abandoned at crime scene was reasonable since just to determine ownership

A shooting occurred in a Taco Bell parking lot, apparently a drug deal gone bad. Three cell phones were found in the car. The police searched them without a warrant and one was defendants. The state argued abandonment (which it clearly was, leaving a cell phone at a crime scene in flight), and also reasonableness because the search was limited to finding the identity of the owner. The court goes with the latter. State v. Moore, 2020 S.C. LEXIS 14 (Feb. 19, 2020):

The trial court denied the motion to suppress on the basis of abandonment. Arguably, some evidence supports the trial court’s finding that Petitioner abandoned his flip phone. Cf. State v. Brown, 423 S.C. 519, 525, 815 S.E.2d 761, 764-65 (2018) (finding a defendant abandoned his cell phone at the scene of the crime and explaining the defendant made no attempt to call or send text messages to the phone to see if someone would answer; the defendant did not attempt to contact the service provider for information on the whereabouts of the phone; and the defendant did not go back to the scene of the crime to look for the phone or call the police to see if they had it); Robinson, 407 S.C. at 181, 754 S.E.2d at 868 (setting forth the deferential “any evidence” standard of review). Yet we acknowledge a close question is presented on the issue of abandonment. We elect to resolve this appeal on other grounds.

The Fourth Amendment, as interpreted, requires that the actions of law enforcement be viewed through a lens of reasonableness. The reasonableness inquiry is fact specific and context dependent. Here, law enforcement limited the warrantless portion of their search of the three phones to the SIM cards alone in an effort to establish ownership, which—as will be explained in more detail below—is a search wholly distinct from examining the contents of the phones. Moreover, at the time of the warrantless portion of the search to discover the identities of the cell phones’ owners, law enforcement officers were responding to an active crime scene, not knowing the identity and whereabouts of the shooter. The public safety concerns are self-evident. Under the circumstances presented, we hold the limited search of the SIM cards to identify the phone numbers was reasonable and in no manner constituted an unreasonable search or seizure.

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