Police officers may only conduct a search following a traffic stop if they believe there is probable cause a crime was committed, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday in a child pornography case involving a bicyclist pulled over for rolling through a stop sign.
Torrance police stopped bicyclist Paul Macabeo in 2012 after following him a short distance with their patrol car's headlights off. They acknowledged he was not riding erratically and did not try to flee.
Macabeo was arrested after the officers searched his phone and said they found photos of underage girls.
The state's highest court said that when officers stopped Macabeo, the most they could have done to him was give him a traffic ticket. Because they had no probable cause to arrest him for a crime, they had no cause to search his phone.
"Under these circumstances the search violated the Fourth Amendment," the justices ruled in their 24-page opinion citing a person's Constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.
They ordered the case returned to a state appellate court, which was directed to instruct a trial court to suppress any evidence gathered from the phone.
The officers said they searched Macabeo's phone after he appeared fidgety and told them he wasn't sure if he was still on probation for a previous crime. It turned out he wasn't on probation.
When one of the officers asked if he could search through Macabeo's pockets, the cyclist told him he could. After the officer removed the phone from Macabeo's pocket, he handed it to another officer, who found the photos.