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Man charged with necrophilia had his phone illegally searched, court rules

Privacy is the name of the game, and at the center of an Arizona Supreme Court decision to side with a man originally charged with necrophilia and sexual assault, reports Ars Technica.

The case revolves around Robin Peoples, who was in a relationship with “D.C.” for a few months. D.C. invited Peoples to spend the night in her apartment, with D.C.’s daughter arriving the next morning to find her mother unresponsive. Authorities then arrived at D.C.’s apartment, where she was pronounced dead at the scene.

Meanwhile, Peoples directed the paramedics to the apartment, with police finding a smartphone in the bathroom. Believing the smartphone belonged to D.C., Officer Travis Mott swiped through the phone, an endeavor made easier by the lack of passcode protection. According to the ruling, the officer searched through the phone in order to identify D.C.’s doctor, hoping that the doctor “could shed light on D.C.’s recent health and sign the death certificate.”

Related: Canadian court rules that your text messages are not as private as you think they are

Instead, the police officer found a video of Peoples having sex with D.C., who appeared unresponsive. Officer Mott then arrested Peoples and questioned him about the video. Peoples confirmed he had intercourse with D.C. and said she was probably dead during intercourse, even though he believed she was breathing. With the video in hand and Peoples responding to questions, the police officially charged him with necrophilia and two counts of sexual assault.

Peoples’ attorney, however, argued that the charges should be dropped since police conducted a search of his phone without a warrant, an argument that a lower court agreed with. Unsurprisingly, the prosecution appealed the decision, which led to a higher court siding with the government. During the appeal, the prosecution argued that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy, since the phone was not passcode protected. Furthermore, because Officer Mott believed the phone belonged to D.C., privacy was a nonissue

The defense then appealed the decision to the Arizona Supreme Court, which ended up siding with Peoples. According to Justice Ann Scott Timmer, who wrote the opinion for the court, a phone not protected by a code is not the same as “an invitation for others to snoop.”

Related: Judge: Don’t expect privacy if you leave your phone at a crime scene

“The court of appeals’ limitation is at odds with the Supreme Court’s reasoning that cellphones contain ‘the privacies of life’ and are therefore worthy of Fourth Amendment protection,” reads the opinion.

The Arizona Supreme Court’s decision jives with 2014’s Riley v. California, during which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police cannot search an arrested person’s phone without a warrant. Even though that is the case, multiple cases have shown that police do not need a warrant to search your phone’s location history and the phone itself if left behind at a crime scene.