A Charleston burglar dropped his phone at the crime scene. Police guessed the password — 1-2-3-4 — and unlocked it. Now, he's locked up, saying his imprisonment is unfair.
Though he took a TV, three laptops and some jewelry during the James Island burglary, it’s what Lamar Sequan Brown left behind that proved to be his undoing. But the 28-year-old complained that the misplacement of his own phone should not have allowed authorities to search it without a warrant and use its contents to send him to prison for 18 years.
South Carolina’s top judges disagreed Wednesday, ruling that cellphones can be considered “abandoned property” that isn’t protected by the U.S. Constitution's rules against unreasonable searches. The precedent-setting decision dashed Brown’s hopes for freedom and established guidelines for using such evidence in the Palmetto State.
“Modern cellphones are not just another item of property,” the S.C. Supreme Court acknowledged in its opinion. They often hold private information. On the home screen of Brown’s phone was a photo of himself.
But the thought that a burglar would lose his phone at a crime scene and not expect officers to search it for evidence "is not an idea that society will accept as reasonable,” the court said.
The justices ruled 4-1 against Brown, with only Chief Justice Donald Beatty saying police should get a warrant before sifting through any password-protected phone.
It was not clear whether Brown would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Appellate Defender David Alexander of Columbia, who represented him, declined to comment.
From the start, Brown’s phone was central to the case.
Soon after returning home from dinner in December 2011, a man heard a phone ringing in his condo, eliciting his fear of an intruder. The resident found the device on a bedroom floor. A nearby window was broken and the room was ransacked.
The intruder was gone. But not without a trace.
Officers from the Charleston Police Department collected the phone that had a four-digit passcode designed to block unauthorized access. Six days later, a detective took a guess: 1-2-3-4.
The detective found Brown’s picture on the background screen and a number for “Grandma.”
Confronted with investigators' only piece of crime-scene evidence, Brown said he had lost the phone the day after the burglary. No one else could have had it on the day of the crime, he told the police.
He was arrested.
A judge allowed the evidence over objections from defense lawyers who argued it wasn’t permitted under the Fourth Amendment's search-and-seizure rules.
A jury convicted him of first-degree burglary. He went to prison.
Brown’s first appeal failed, but the S.C. Court of Appeals’ decision was divided. The Supreme Court took the case.
In recent decades, state and federal courts have declared that “abandoned property” isn’t protected by the Constitution. Brown’s legal team, citing a 2014 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, said there was an exception to that rule when it comes to private information stored on cellphones.
South Carolina’s high court, though, declared Wednesday that cellphones and their data can be abandoned. So the question stood: Had Brown abandoned his?
Yes, the court said. For six days, it sat in an evidence locker and Brown made no effort to go to the scene and look for it or to see if the police had it. Instead, he canceled his cellular service.
“The reason a burglar would not look too hard to find a phone he lost during a burglary is obvious,” the court said in its ruling. “Any police officer would assume after six days … that the owner had decided it was too risky to try to recover it.”
His failure to look, the court added, amounted to Brown’s willingness to give it up.
The chief justice's dissent, though, noted Brown “never disclaimed ownership” and cut off service to the phone in hopes that others wouldn’t be able to use it.
Brown will be eligible for release in 2027, state records showed. He has tallied a short list of disciplinary actions behind bars. The most recent came late last year for possessing a cellphone.