Appeals court rules cellphone warrant unconstitutionally broad

by | Aug 28, 2017 | Criminal Defense

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit just ruled that a warrant to search a man’s residence for his cellphone or other electronic devices was too broad to be constitutional. This places a firm limitation on so-called “fishing expeditions” by law enforcement.

The D.C. Circuit’s opinions aren’t officially the law in Pennsylvania, but the court is considered highly influential. For one, it is a common place presidents go to consider potential Supreme Court appointees, which means the opinions of these judges may someday hold sway nationwide. For another thing, the D.C. Circuit holds jurisdiction over much of what federal agencies do.

The case before the court involved a man who D.C. police initially suspected of being a getaway driver in a local murder. They apparently did not find evidence indicating that he was involved. Unfortunately, that did not mean the man was cleared of all wrongdoing.

Sometime just before or during the search, a gun was thrown from a window of the man’s residence. Since he had a prior criminal record, he was charged and convicted for unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.

That conviction has now been overturned. The reason is that the police officers failed to justify the search warrant with sufficient probable cause. All search warrants must be supported by probable cause, which is information sufficient to convince a prudent person that evidence of a crime would be found in the location to be searched.

In fact, the officers failed to ascertain whether the man even owned a cellphone.

“The assumption that most people own a cell phone would not automatically justify an open-ended warrant to search a home anytime officers seek a person’s phone,” reads the opinion.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, and the government isn’t allowed to benefit from violating that right. The warrant was too broad, so anything gained from its use cannot be used as evidence. Therefore, the gun was suppressed from evidence and the conviction was overturned.