In Turiano v. City of Phoenix (February 4, 2022), an Arizona District Court issued an injunction prohibiting the City from pursuing disciplinary proceedings against Officer Turiano based on his refusal to consent to a warrantless search of his personal cell phone.

The City initiated an investigation into the origin of challenge coin commemorating a protester being hit in the groin with by the officer’s munition on one side and the other side noted the date and location of the event and stated “Make America Great Again One Nut at a Time.”  In the course of the investigation into the origin of the coin, Officer Turiano was interrogated and ordered under threat of termination to grant consent to search his cell phone.

The officer objected and sought an injunction arguing the order unlawfully violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  The District Court applied the O’Connor v. Ortega standard, first determining that the officer possessed an expectation of privacy in his phone and that the employer’s search was not reasonable.  The Court “easily” concluded he had a reasonable expectation of privacy, noting that the phone contains enormous amounts of deeply personal information unrelated to his employment, the City did not pay for the phone or the data plan, and the phone was not used for work purposes.  Moreover, the City’s policies do not address the authority to search personal electronic devices unless used to conduct city business.

The Court also rejected the City’s claim of a workplace exception to the Fourth Amendment.  The exception allows warrantless searches to investigate workplace misconduct, but is limited to areas and items that are related to work and generally within the employer’s control.  The Court noted that this exception does not apply to searches of an employee’s home, briefcase, medical records, personal safes, etc.  The Court concluded that a personal cell phone is not generally within the employer’s control and not subject to the workplace exemption.  “Just as a public employer lacks authority to rummage through an employee’s home for evidence of workplace misconduct without a warrant, so too an employer lacks authority to conduct a warrantless search of an employee’s personal cell phone.” 

The Court also rejected the City’s assertion that it had reasonable suspicion that the phone contained evidence of misconduct, pointing out that the officer’s involvement in the incident and related communications has no bearing on who created the coin.  Further, the Court refused to allow the City to search his phone for evidence of policy violations by other officers. The Court held some amount of individualized suspicion is required and the Officer’s substantial privacy interests in the contents of his cell phone is afforded “the most stringent Fourth Amendment protection.”