Dec. 5, 2016
Attention: court, legal, privacy, crime reporters
Media Contact: Susan Gluss, email@example.com, 510-642-6936
What: Legal Experts say today’s ruling by the Supreme Court of California in People v. Macabeo will strengthen Californians’ privacy rights and curtail unlawful police searches.
Who: Charles Weisselberg, UC Berkeley Law School professor who argued the case for defendant Paul Macabeo before the Supreme Court of California; Catherine Crump, associate director of the law school’s Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic, which served as Macabeo’s co-counsel; lead attorney Karen Hunter Bird of Bird & Bird.
Details: The Supreme Court of California issued a ruling today in favor of defendant Paul Macabeo, stopped by police in 2012 for a minor bicycle infraction. During that incident, police searched Macabeo’s cell phone without a warrant—and then arrested and jailed him after finding pornographic photos on his phone.
“This is a really important decision for millions of ordinary Californians, as well as for Mr. Macabeo. We are relieved that the state’s highest court has clearly told police that they can’t simply search anyone they stop for the most minor traffic infraction,” Weisselberg said. “By curtailing this unlawful and offensive police practice, this decision can help police rebuild trust in the communities they serve.”
Crump noted the importance of the court’s ruling at this critical moment.
“This is an important street-level policing decision at a time of strong concern about how police officers interact with the civilians they encounter; concern generated after events in Ferguson that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement,” Crump said. “After this decision, it is even more clear that police officers cannot conduct full searches of people just because they witness them committing minor infractions. If there is no arrest, there can be no search incident to arrest. It’s that simple. This decision will help safeguard people’s privacy, and curtail the expansion of police power.”
Background: In July 2012, police pulled over Californian Paul Macabeo for riding his bicycle through a stop sign. The officers asked Macabeo for permission to empty his pockets, and he agreed. They found his cell phone and searched it—without a warrant and without his consent. Scrolling through the phone, they found pornographic photos.
The officers had only intended to cite Macabeo for failure to stop, a minor infraction. But once they discovered the photos, they handcuffed him and locked him up. He was found guilty of a felony and sentenced to five years of probation.
Macabeo’s lawyer, Karen Bird, petitioned for review before the Supreme Court of California, and Berkeley Law’s Charles Weisselberg and Catherine Crump offered to involve the school’s legal clinic as co-counsel. Weisselberg delivered oral arguments in People v. Macabeo on May 4, 2016.
The case raised a significant issue with far-reaching implications. Simply put, the issue concerns the legality of a warrantless search: when it can take place and why. Typically, police are allowed to conduct a search without a warrant during or after an arrest. This makes sense: Officers need to ensure that suspects aren’t concealing weapons or criminal evidence.
But in Macabeo’s case, the facts show that police had no intention of arresting him. They searched his cell phone anyway—and arrested him after finding the photos. The clinic maintained that—putting aside the nature of the photos — the search was illegal and undermined the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy.
Contact info for interviews:
Charles Weisselberg, firstname.lastname@example.org, 510-643-8159
Catherine Crump, email@example.com, 510-642-5049
Karen Hunter Bird, firstname.lastname@example.org, (310) 371-7711
For editors: Photos available of Weisselberg, Crump and clinic students.
Read full account of the case here.