People v. Diaz

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People v. Diaz
Seal of the Supreme Court of California
Argued October 5, 2010
Decided January 3, 2011
Full case nameThe People v. Gregory Diaz
Citation(s)51 Cal. 4th 84; 244 P.3d 501; 119 Cal. Rptr. 3d 105; 2011
Case history
Prior historyReview granted, California Court of Appeals decision unpublished
Affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals denying motion to suppress evidence obtained without warrant from Diaz's cell phone upon lawful custodial arrest.
Court membership
Chief JusticeJoyce L. Kennard (Acting)
Associate JusticesKathryn Werdegar, Ming Chin, Marvin R. Baxter, Carol Corrigan, Ronald M. George, Carlos R. Moreno
Case opinions
MajorityChin, joined by Baxter, Corrigan, George
Concur/dissentWerdegar, joined by Moreno
Laws applied
U.S. Const. Amend. IV
Overruled by
Riley v. California, 573 US ___ (2014)

People v. Diaz, 51 Cal. 4th 84, 244 P.3d 501, 119 Cal. Rptr. 3d 105 (Cal. January 3, 2011) was a Supreme Court of California case holding that police are not required to obtain a warrant to search information contained within a cell phone in a lawful arrest.[1] In a sting operation conducted by local police, the defendant, Gregory Diaz, was arrested for the sale of the illicit drug ecstasy and his cell phone, containing incriminating evidence, was seized and searched without a warrant. In trial court proceedings, Diaz motioned to suppress the information obtained from his cell phone, which was denied on the grounds that the search of his cell phone was incident to a lawful arrest. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the court's decision, a ruling which was later upheld by the California Supreme Court.[2] In 2014, the United States Supreme Court overruled that position in Riley v. California, holding that without a warrant, police may not search the digital information on a cell phone that has been seized incident to arrest.[3]


At about 2:50 PM on April 25, 2007, Gregory Diaz was observed participating in an illicit Ecstasy transaction with a police informant. Diaz drove to the location of sale previously agreed upon with the police informant, and the sale took place shortly after the informant got in the back seat of the car Diaz was driving. Immediately upon the completion of the sale, Deputy Sheriff Victor Fazio of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, who was listening in to the transaction through a microphone hidden on the informant, pulled Diaz's car over and arrested him for conspiracy to sell drugs. Six tablets of ecstasy and a small amount of marijuana was found on Diaz's person, as well as his cell phone.[2]

At the sheriff's station, a detective took Diaz's cell phone and handed it over to Fazio, who took it into evidence. At about 4:18 PM, Fazio interviewed the defendant, who denied the charges against him. After the interview, at about 4:23 PM, 90 minutes after the seizure of the phone, Fazio looked through Diaz's text messages and found a message that read, "6 4 80," which Fazio took to mean "6 pills of ecstasy for $80." Diaz confessed to the crime shortly after he was shown the text message by Fazio.[2]

Lower court decision[edit]

In trial court proceedings, Diaz filed a motion to suppress the evidence found on his cell phone, citing Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The trial court denied the motion, citing the fact that "incident to the arrest, search of his person and everything that turned up is really fair game in terms of being evidence of a crime or instrumentality of a crime or whatever the theory might be".[2] Upon denial of suppression, Diaz pleaded guilty to transportation of a controlled substance.[2]

Decision and rationale[edit]

The California Supreme Court held that seizure of Diaz's cell phone was lawful because the seizure occurred during a search incident to arrest – an exception of the Fourth Amendment.[4] The court reasoned that the U.S. Supreme Court had established a precedent in several cases, wherein officers were allowed to seize objects under an arrestee's control and perform searches of those objects without warrant for the purpose of preserving evidence.[2]

In doing so, the court applied the reasoning of United States v. Robinson, which held that the unwarranted search and seizure of a cigarette carton on Robinson's body was valid. The court, with Robinson in mind, contended that only an arrest is required for a valid search of an arrestee's person and belongings. The court then proceeded to apply United States v. Edwards to hold that the search was valid despite the fact that it had occurred 90 minutes after arrest. In Edwards, an arrestee's clothing was seized 10 hours after arrest in order to preserve evidence (paint chips) that might be present on the clothes.[2]

The Court then considered United States v. Chadwick, which held that any object associated with an arrestee may be searched incident to arrest – a precedent that supported the claim that the search of Diaz's cell phone was valid incident to his arrest. Under the Chadwick ruling, Diaz's cell phone was not only on his person but also directly associated with him at the time, and thus a delayed search of the phone 90 minutes after the seizure was valid.[2]

Given these three cases, the Court concluded that the search and seizure of Diaz's cell phone was valid.[2]

Concurrence and dissent[edit]

Kennard concurrence[edit]

Acting Chief Justice Kennard concurred with the court's judgement, with a few exceptions. Kennard noted that in its earlier rulings surrounding the doctrine of search incident to arrest, the Supreme Court probably did not have cell phones in mind, because Robinson, Edwards and Chadwick were decided in an era before mobile communications. However, Kennard then proceeded to contend that it is not the lower court's responsibility to challenge the decisions of the Supreme Court, but only to apply its precedents until the Supreme Court decides to revise them, as the Supreme Court warned in Rodriguez de Quijas v. Shearson/American Express Inc.[2]

Werdegar dissent[edit]

Justice Werdegar focused her dissent on three key arguments: the cell phone as a relatively new piece of technology, the fact that the search of the cell phone occurred some time after the phone was confiscated, and that the precedents cited by the Court did not apply to the cell phone as a "container."[2]

Werdegar argued that at the time when Robinson and Edwards were decided, the Supreme Court did not have enough information about cell phones to establish a precedent for their search. "Containers" mentioned in the cases, such as clothing or a cigarette carton, are not analogous to the cell phone – which could potentially contain wealth of private electronic data. Werdegar was especially concerned that the size of cell phone storage, at the time of writing, could contain "thousands of images or other digital files."[2]

Werdegar proceeded to reason that the search occurred after the cell phone had already been seized from Diaz, meaning that the phone was not actually under Diaz's control, effectively negating the preservation of evidence exemption of the Fourth Amendment.[2]

In a more philosophical argument, Werdegar contended that the privacy limitations of search and seizure upon arrest only extended to the arrestee's body – and not the intangible data contained within the cell phone, which holds far more information than any container or item that could lawfully be seized. In allowing such broad seizures, Werdegar worried that the ruling would potentially give police a "carte blanche" and the legal right to search and seize any article or object belonging to an arrestee incident to arrest.[2]

Court's response to dissent[edit]

Responding to Werdegar's contention that a cell phone is distinct from a cigarette carton or clothes on an arrestee's body, the Court cited United States v. Ross. In United States v. Ross, the Supreme Court held that no privacy existed in packages, regardless of their type, shape or size, during the search of a car. Applied to Diaz, the Court reasoned that a cell phone was no different from any other container on Diaz's person. For the purposes of applying the past precedents of Robinson and Chadwick, the court continued, Diaz's cell phone is a container like any other.[2]

In response to the argument that a cell phone has a much larger storage capacity than any item that Diaz could have carried on his person, the Court asserted that there was no evidence that Diaz's phone had a significant storage capacity. Even if it did have a large storage capacity, the Court reasoned, the size of an item shouldn't be relevant in the sense that it would make it increasingly difficult for law enforcement to uphold the law when such distinctions in container size could be made.[2]

Considering the Dissent's contention that data on the cell phone was theoretically not on Diaz's body, the Court cited Supreme Court precedent that allowed any object found on an arrestee's body to be searched regardless of externalities. The location of the data is irrelevant insofar as the container was associated with and under Diaz's control.[2]

Lastly, the Court argued that despite the fact that the search occurred 90 minutes after the arrest, past precedent in Edwards had established the legitimacy of that particular search.[2]


Many experts in the field argue that, unlike traditional objects that can be lawfully seized, a cell phone contains far more personal data, incriminating or otherwise – and the problem with the Diaz ruling, as stated by Justice Moreno in the dissenting opinion, is that it "goes much further, apparently allowing police carte blanche, with no showing of exigency, to rummage at leisure through the wealth of personal and business information that can be carried on a mobile phone or handheld computer merely because the device was taken from an arrestee's person."[1][2]


On February 18, 2011, shortly after the Diaz decision, California state senator Mark Leno introduced SB 914 in the California Legislature which would require a warrant to search an arrestee's cell phone. The measure passed both the California Senate and Assembly with a bipartisan vote of 31–4 and 28-9, respectively. The bill was vetoed by Governor Brown on October 9, 2011, which was sustained by the legislature on March 1, 2012.[5]

In a somewhat similar federal case, United States v. Flores-Lopez, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on February 29, 2012, upheld the warrantless search of a cell phone upon arrest with reasoning similar to Diaz.[6]

Jay Leiderman, Diaz's attorney who originally filed the motion to suppress at trial, called the high court decision "weak" and a "scary one" because it relies on older U.S. Supreme Court cases that have not kept up with today’s modern technology where cell phones and smart phones can hold tens of thousands of pieces of information. "This type of thing opens up the doors for Big Brother to come flying in," he said.[7]

Riley v. California overturns Diaz[edit]

On June 25, 2014, the United States Supreme Court overturned this decision in Riley v. California,[3] where it held that without a warrant, police may not search the digital information on a cell phone that has been seized incident to arrest.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Minkevtich, Hannah (February 23, 2011). "People v. Diaz: Is Your iPhone Constitutionally Protected?". Berkeley Technology Law Journal Bolt. Retrieved 2012-03-18.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s People v. Diaz (2011)[permanent dead link]
  3. ^ a b Liptak, Adam (25 June 2014). "Major Ruling Shields Privacy of Cellphones". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 September 2014.
  4. ^ U.S. Constitution: Fourth Amendment - Search and Seizure
  5. ^ "Senate Bill SB-914 Search warrants: portable electronic devices (2011-2012)". California Leglislature. Retrieved 5 September 2014.
  6. ^ Justia – United States v. Flores-Lopez
  7. ^ Ventura County Star 4 January 2011; retrieved 23 January 2013

Further reading[edit]