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Carpenter v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

November 2, 2017


         Application for Review of the Decision of the District Court of Appeal - Direct Conflict of Decisions First District - Case No. 1D13-6199 (Bay County)

          Ross A. Keene of Ross Keene Law, P.A., Pensacola, Florida, for Petitioner

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Trisha Meggs Pate, Bureau Chief, and Virginia Harris, Assistant Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida, for Respondent.


          LEWIS, J.

         Christopher L. Carpenter seeks review of the decision of the First District Court of Appeal in State v. Carpenter, 158 So.3d 693 (Fla. 1st DCA 2015), on the basis that it expressly and directly conflicts with the decision of the Second District Court of Appeal in Willis v. State, 148 So.3d 480 (Fla. 2d DCA 2014), on a question of law. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(3), Fla. Const.


         On April 2, 2013, Carpenter was charged with one count of traveling to meet a minor to commit an unlawful sex act, one count of soliciting a minor to commit an unlawful sex act, and three counts of transmission of material harmful to a minor. At the time of the incident, law enforcement already had extensive evidence that Carpenter, who was twenty-eight years old, had engaged, through email and text message, in a series of sexually explicit conversations in response to a Craigslist ad with an undercover officer posing as a fourteen-year-old girl. These conversations ultimately resulted in Carpenter and the undercover officer planning to meet. Upon his arrival at the agreed-upon address, officers arrested Carpenter.

         At the time of Carpenter's arrest, the arresting officers conducted a search incident to arrest and seized his cell phone, separating Carpenter from the cell phone. These officers then transported the cell phone in a special protective covering to a specialty technician who later entered into and searched the phone at a distant location without first obtaining a warrant. Sexually explicit text messages and photos were found on the seized cell phone.

         Carpenter filed a motion to suppress the evidence found on his cell phone, relying on Smallwood v. State (Smallwood II), 113 So.3d 724 (Fla. 2013), to support his assertion that the warrantless search of his cell phone violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

         At the suppression hearing, Investigator Josh Scioners testified that he performed the forensic examination of Carpenter's cell phone. Scioners also testified that cell phones present issues with regard to the potential for the contents to be removed or destroyed remotely, thus necessitating turning off the device or using a Faraday bag, which blocks any signals from coming in or out of the device. While Faraday bags do help prevent the cell phone's data from being remotely erased, these bags are not a guaranteed method of data protection and the cell phone still must be removed from the Faraday bag to be examined, risking that the data be compromised. Investigator Scioners further testified that he relied on Smallwood v. State (Smallwood I), 61 So.3d 448 (Fla. 1st DCA 2011), when he searched Carpenter's phone. He did, however, note that it would have taken a short time to obtain a warrant and that Carpenter would likely not have had the opportunity to make any calls while he was detained in the patrol car or initially transported to the station.

         After the suppression hearing, the trial court granted Carpenter's motion to suppress, relying on the holding in Smallwood II that warrantless cell phone searches are unconstitutional. The First District reversed, relying on Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229 (2011), to support the position that, because the officers were relying in good faith on the holding in Smallwood I, the appellate precedent at the time of the search, the evidence recovered from Carpenter's cell phone was not subject to the exclusionary rule because the good-faith exception applied.[1] Carpenter, 158 So.3d at 697. This review follows.


         In Davis, the United States Supreme Court announced the application of the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule in cases where officers have reasonably relied on binding appellate precedent when conducting a search, even when that appellate precedent is later overruled and the search is deemed to be unconstitutional. 564 U.S. at 232. Davis involved the search of a vehicle passenger compartment after the police had removed the individuals from the vehicle and secured two arrestees in the back of patrol cars. Id. at 235. The officers, in conducting the search, were relying on the United States Supreme Court's holding in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 459 (1981), which had been utilized and controlling for almost thirty years, and which held that "when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile." Davis, 564 U.S. at 233 (quoting Belton, 453 U.S. at 459-60). For almost thirty years, courts across the United States had uniformly read Belton's holding as authorizing vehicle searches incident to arrest, regardless of whether the arrestee was secured in a patrol car or within reaching distance of the vehicle. Id.

         While Davis's appeal was pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the United States Supreme Court released its decision in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), which created a new rule that limited Belton's holding. In discussing the new Gant decision, the Supreme Court emphasized in Davis that the exclusionary rule's purpose is to deter future Fourth Amendment violations: "For exclusion to be appropriate, the deterrence benefits of suppression must outweigh its heavy costs." Davis, 564 U.S. at 237.

         The Supreme Court explained that Davis's claim turned on the lack of police culpability, and determined that penalizing officers for continuing to follow the then-binding law, which had been clearly controlling for almost thirty years at the time of the search, would not have the requisite deterrent effect needed to justify exclusion. Id. at 240-41.

About all that exclusion would deter in this case is conscientious police work. Responsible law-enforcement officers will take care to learn "what is required of them" under Fourth Amendment precedent and will conform their conduct to these rules. But by the same token, when binding appellate precedent specifically authorizes a particular police practice, well-trained officers will and should use that tool to fulfill their crime-detection and public-safety responsibilities. An officer who conducts a search in reliance on binding appellate precedent does no more than " 'ac[t] as a reasonable officer would and should act' " under the circumstances. The deterrent effect of exclusion in such a case can only be to discourage the officer from " 'do[ing] his duty.' "
That is not the kind of deterrence the exclusionary rule seeks to foster. We have stated before, and we reaffirm today, that the harsh sanction of exclusion "should not be applied to deter objectively reasonable law enforcement activity." Evidence obtained during a search conducted in reasonable reliance on binding precedent is not subject to the exclusionary rule.

Id. at 241 (emphasis and alterations in original) (citations omitted). Thus, the Supreme Court in Davis held that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied when officers acted with objectively reasonable reliance on binding judicial precedent that had been in place and followed for almost thirty years.

         The State and our dissenting colleagues in this case seek to expand Davis to the significantly different ...

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