Fourth Circuit invokes exigent circumstances for seizure of cell phones from the defendant at the police station and the good faith exception for the searches from a broad warrant for the data for these phones.

This is an appeal after a conditional guilty plea to receipt of child pornography, where the District Court denied a motion to suppress evidence found during searches of his two cell phones and his home. One challenge was to the seizure of the phones, and the other was to the officer’s reliance on the warrants to perform those searches.

The defendant in this case was in the police station being questioned about an “upskirting” incident in a grocery store. The Defendant brought both of his phones to the interview. The detective seized the phones and later got a warrant to search its contents. The police later found child pornography.

The appellate court upheld the District Court’s invocation of the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. The Court held the police had probable cause to seize the cell phones and that the officer had a “good reason to fear” that the defendant would destroy digital evidence if allowed to depart the police station with the phones.

Regarding the warrant, the Fourth Circuit had no problem with the two day delay between the seizure of the phones and the issuance of the warrant, finding that the officer acted with reasonable diligence.

The defense also complained that the warrants were overbroad. The Court assumed they were without deciding that that was true, and then invoked the good faith exception.

The basis of the defense’s argument that the officer did not act in good faith is because the warrant authorized the search of the entire contents of the cellphones. The Court noted that the decision to authorize this search occurred before the Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California 134 S. Ct. 2473, 189 L. Ed. 2d 430 (2014) which held that a warrant is required. The Fourth Circuit decided that they couldn’t conclude that the officers acted unreasonably in failing to appreciate the breadth of the phone warrant at the time it was issued.

The case is United States v. Burton, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 35555 (4th Cir.) December 19, 2018.

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