SCOTUS Requires a Warrant to Search a Cellphone

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The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, stated that the Fourth Amendment requires a search warrant to look at the digital contents of a cell phone that the police have seized incident to arrest.  The opinion is Riley v. California, No. 13-132, 573 U.S. ___, ___ S. Ct. ___, 2013 WL 2864483 (June 25, 2014).

The decision was unanimous, with a concurrence by Justice Alito.

Basically, the Court took two cases, Riley and United States v. Wurie, No. 13-212, that had reached opposite conclusions and consolidated them.  In Riley, a driver was stopped for expired registration and having a suspended driver’s license.  His car was impounded and inventoried, and two handguns were found.  A search of his cell phone incident to arrest and other factors led police to believe that Riley was a member of the Bloods street gang.  Following a warrantless search of the phone, photographs were located tying Riley to a gang shooting and he was charged with attempted murder and several others crimes.  The trial court denied a motion to suppress the evidence and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

In Wurie, police were conducting routine surveillance and saw Wurie make a drug transaction.  Wurie was arrested and his cell phone seized.  They searched the phone (an older flip phone) and eventually obtained a search warrant for Wurie’s house based on the warrantless search of the phone.  Police seized 215 grams of cocaine, a firearm and other drugs, and cash.  Wurie’s motion to suppress was denied, but the First Circuit reversed and vacated the conviction.

Roberts held that the search incident to arrest exception (from Chimel v. United States, 395 U.S. 752 (1969)) did not include the digital contents of a cell phone.  Police may examine the phone to make sure that it is not a weapon, but may not search the contents.  The claim that the search is necessary to prevent the destruction of evidence is also not valid.  Police may place the phone in a Faraday bag to prevent outside signals from reaching it, may turn off the phone, or may remove the battery.

Roberts cited Judge Learned Hand who said in 1926 that it is “a totally different thing to search a man’s pockets and use against him what they contain, from ransacking his house for everything which may incriminate him.” Riley, slip op. at 20 (internal citation omitted).  Searching a cell phone is ransacking the house.

The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.Id., slip op. at 28 (emphasis added).

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Did the Kern County Sheriff Illegally Seize Videos of Deputies Beating a Man to Death?

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It is quite possible that under federal law, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office illegally seized two cellphone videos from citizens.

The Privacy Protection Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000aa(a) (hereafter PPA), states:

Notwithstanding any other law, it shall be unlawful for a government officer or employee, in connection with the investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense, to search for or seize any work product materials possessed by a person reasonably believed to have a purpose to disseminate to the public a newspaper, book, broadcast, or other similar form of public communication….

This law provides that if a person takes a video of police action and intends to disseminate it to the public, the police can only obtain the video by subpoena, not by a search warrant.  In this case neither of the individuals who had their property seized were suspects in the crime being investigated, the death of David Silva at the hands of Kern County Sheriff’s deputies, nor were they being arrested.

The sheriff’s office was aware of the video because the individual that taped the beating called 911.

Further, that individual informed the 911 personnel that she intended to disseminate the video to the public (at 0:46 of the call), saying “I’m sending it to the news.”  At this point, the Sheriff’s office was on notice that this was “work product” protected by the Privacy Protection Act, and should have been obtained by subpoena, not by a search warrant.  Indeed, the law specifically provides that a warrant can only be used after a subpoena has failed to obtain the material.

This is clearly established law, first ruled on 20 years ago.  In 1993, the United States Secret Service raided a computer game company under a search warrant, and seized a large amount of files.  Included in these files was material that was to be published and disseminated to the public.  The company immediately notified the Secret Service of this, which promptly ignored the company and refused to return the material to it.  Note that the company was not a suspect in the criminal investigation.  The court held that the United States was liable to the company for damages for each and every day that they held the material after having been notified of its character under the PPA.  Steve Jackson Games v. United States Secret Serv., 816 F. Supp. 432 (W.D. Tex. 1994), aff’d 36 F.3d 457 (5th Cir. 1994).  Steve Jackson Games were awarded over $ 50,000 in damages, plus $ 195,000 in attorney fees at the trial court level.

This has continued to hold true in other cases.  See generally Morse v. Regents of the Univ. of Cal., 821 F. Supp. 2d 1112 (N.D. Cal. 2011) (holding that officers and chief of police were not entitled to immunity for PPA violation); Citicasters v. McCaskill, 89 F.3d 1350 (8th Cir. 1996) (PPA requires use of a subpoena unless a listed exception is met); Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. United States, 713 F. Supp. 1308 (D. Minn. 1989) (comments in dicta, case is on attorney fees following summary judgment for violating PPA by police seizure).

Note that every day the video is held by the sheriff’s office without returning it to the owner increases the damages, as the video could easily be sold to any number of news providers.

I’m surprised that the attorneys representing the videographers have not mentioned this at all.

 

 

Cotati, California Police Kick in Door, Taser Disabled Vet without Warrant

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According to this Youtube video, officers of the Cotati California Police Department kicked in a door of a residence and tasered a disabled veteran because they residents would not allow them to enter unless they had probable cause or a search warrant.

The police were called to the scene on a noise complaint and told the residents that they needed to enter because of possible domestic violence.  The residents told them that they could not enter without either a search warrant or probable cause.  The officers then kicked the door, and although the residents were not offering any resistance, immediately tasered the disabled veteran who was filming the encounter.

The residents were arrested and charged with obstruction for standing up for their constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

So let me get this straight.  According to the Cotati Police, all they have to say is that they were investigating a domestic disturbance, and you no longer have Fourth Amendment rights.

Something is wrong in California.

 

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