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Inmate's Cell Phone Inside a Halfway House May Be Searched Without Cause

Richard Jackson was convicted of failure to register as a sex offender. After his prison term, he was released to a halfway house under a court order that required him to obey parole and halfway house rules. The halfway house rules barred residents from possessing cell phones in the facility.

An officer found Jackson with a cell phone inside the facility. Though the officer returned the phone, he warned Jackson the phone would be searched upon any further violation. Within a few days, a staff member found another resident with Jackson's cell phone. A subsequent search revealed pornographic images. A forensic examination discovered 37 images of known child pornography. Jackson was convicted of possession of child pornography.

On appeal, Jackson claimed the warrantless search of his phone was unconstitutional and the child pornography should have been suppressed. Jackson argued that Riley v. California (134 S.Ct. 2473 (2014)) prohibited officers from searching his phone without a warrant. In Riley, the Supreme Court held that officers must generally obtain a search warrant before searching data on a cell phone that is seized incident to an arrest.

The Supreme Court has approved suspicionless searches of parolees whose parole terms include random search provisions. In Samson v. California (547 U.S. 843 (2006)), the Court held that "the essence of parole is release from prison, before the completion of sentence, on the condition that the prisoner abide by certain rules during the balance of the sentence." Because Samson knew that the terms of his parole dictated he could be searched by a police officer at any time, the Court ruled he did not have a legitimate expectation of privacy.

Citing Samson, the court of appeals held that Jackson lacked a legitimate expectation of privacy in his phone and the government had substantial interests that justified the search. Note that the decision does not mean any officer may search a parolee's cell phone at any time. The holding in Jackson is based on the parole conditions and halfway house rules that specifically banned cell phones in the facility and warned of suspicionless searches of property inside the halfway house. United States v. Jackson, 2017 WL 3429837 (8th Cir. 2017)