Comparing Cell Phones To Houses Not Exactly Deterring Use Of Generalized Warrants, Court Finds

from the the-analogy-that-almost-worked dept

Sometimes the courts realize today's smartphones can't be reasonably compared to anything else people have historically carried with them, like wallets, address books and the contents of their pockets. In the Supreme Court's Riley decision, it noted that searching a smartphone is roughly analogous to searching someone's house -- people's entire lives are contained in these devices. Hence, the warrant requirement, which turns phones from a "container" to the most sacrosanct domain under the Fourth Amendment.

Sometimes, though, the house analogy works against defendants and their smartphones, as in this recent case highlighted at A warrant application to search a suspect's cell phone was broadly (and badly) written, asking for basically everything the device could conceivably contain.

In his affidavit, which was attached to his application for the warrant, Walker set out the substance of the investigative interviews and concluded by stating: "Based on the above facts . . . I have probable cause to believe [the defendant's] cell phone contains valuable information that will link the victim/suspect ([the defendant]) and suspect/victim (Lerouge) to the crime." Walker received and executed a warrant to search the defendant's iPhone for the following:

"Subscriber's name and telephone number, contact list, address book, calendar, date book entries, group list, speed dial list, phone configuration information and settings, incoming and outgoing draft sent, deleted text messages, saved, opened, unopened draft sent and deleted electronic mail messages, mobile instant message chat logs and contact information mobile Internet browser and saved and deleted photographs on an Apple iPhone, silver and black, green soft rubber case. Additionally, information from the networks and carriers such as subscribers information, call history information, call history containing use times and numbers dialed, called, received and missed."
The suspect sought to suppress the photographs found on his iPhone -- ones in which he was holding a gun and wearing the same jacket as the person sought in connection with a shooting.

The court did have problems with the warrant as written.
The warrant is awkwardly written, conflating at least in part the items to be searched for and the places to be searched. We agree with the dissent that as written the warrant and the warrant application are overly broad.
But it found that considering what would need to be viewed to determine whether or not it was evidence of criminal activity, the search did not exceed the limits of the warrant.
[C]onsidered in conjunction with the affidavit incorporated therein, a commonsense reading shows that the warrant authorized a search of various types of files for evidence of communications that would link the defendant and another person to the shooting.
In its decision, the court applied the house analogy (tipping a hat towards the Riley decision) and found the broad range of content searched to be roughly equivalent to the search of a residence with a warrant.
In the physical world, police need not particularize a warrant application to search a property beyond providing a specific address, in part because it would be unrealistic to expect them to be equipped, beforehand, to identify which specific room, closet, drawer, or container within a home will contain the objects of their search.
So, when searching the phone, the government may treat it like a house, providing little more than a short physical description of the item, along with where it thinks evidence may be found. The government, however, should not extend this analogy further than is necessary. It cannot remain vague on the specifics of what it's searching for, nor can it avail itself to the entire contents of the device without reason.
Nevertheless, much like a home, such devices can still appropriately be searched when there is probable cause to believe they contain particularized evidence. See McDermott, 448 Mass. at 770-772. However, given the properties that render an iPhone distinct from the closed containers regularly seen in the physical world, a search of its many files must be done with special care and satisfy a more narrow and demanding standard.
At issue here were the incriminating photographs, which the defendant sought to suppress. He argued the police only had probable cause to search his text messages and phone calls. The court disagrees.
Communications can come in many forms including photographic, which the defendant freely admits. So long as such evidence may reasonably be found in the file containing the defendant's photographs, that file may be searched.


Once the photographs in question were viewed, their evidentiary relevance linking the defendant (holding a gun and wearing a jacket similar to the one worn by the shooter) to the specific crimes under investigation was apparent.
"Your phone = your house" does the defendant no good here, primarily because warrants can be used to access both with little fear of constitutional violations. Even the comprehensive nature of the warrant falls within the confines of the Constitution, as the swearing officer had shown that evidence linking the suspect to the crime would likely be found on his phone.

The dissenting opinion, however, disagrees that the photographs entered as evidence were actually evidence of anything more than the suspect's ownership of a gun and a jacket.
I disagree with the court's resolution of the issues presented here. In my view, the search of the photograph files on the defendant's Apple iPhone "smart" cellular telephone was not supported by probable cause, and the warrant authorizing that search was not sufficiently particular. Furthermore, even had there been probable cause to support a search of the photograph files, the photographs seized by the police appear to have been outside the permissible scope of the warrant.
The photographs were supposedly "threats" sent to a recipient by text message. The dissent argues that applying the phone = house analogy may prevent warrantless searches, but it does very little to deter police from performing invasive searches of suspects' devices.
The court incorrectly holds, however, that there was probable cause to search the entire set of photograph files on the defendant's iPhone. In my view, there was not a substantial basis for concluding that the entire set of the defendant's photograph files, rather than just the subset of photograph files attached to the defendant's text and multimedia messages, was related to the criminal activity under investigation.
The dissent warns that the over-reliance on analogies will likely result in more abuse of non-specific warrants as devices carried by a majority of the population continue to hold more and more of their "private" lives.
In an increasingly digital world, we continue to lean heavily on analogies between digital media and physical spaces and objects, such as that between a computer and a closed container. In reality, however, searches of physical spaces for physical objects are akin to searches of digital media for digital information much in the way that "a ride on horseback" resembles "a flight to the moon."
While narrowing the scope of purely digital searches may be difficult, it is not impossible. The purpose of the court is not to make things easier for law enforcement, but rather demand more from them as the stakes rise. To call a phone a house may keep cops from accessing contents without a warrant, but it does little to prevent them from accessing everything once a warrant is in hand.

Here, the state sought to apply the "plain view" standard to its access of photos not attached to text messages -- positing that the incriminating pictures would inevitably have been seen by investigators during the execution of the search warrant. But, as the dissent points out, applying a warrant exception to a not-quite-fitting analogy only encourages law enforcement to pursue generalized searches that encompass the entire contents of suspects' smartphones, rather than limit themselves to where evidence is most likely to be found.
In Preventive Med. Assocs., supra at 832, this court elected to "leave for another day the question whether use of the plain view doctrine as a justification for admission of evidence should be precluded or at least narrowed in the context of searches for electronic records." While not today, the day when the court will be called upon to determine more precisely when and how the plain view exception applies to digital searches is likely close at hand.
The inevitable has been postponed. This court -- and many others around the country -- will have to tangle with this issue and decide for themselves whether they'd rather apply analogies or remedies. Only one will prevent digital devices from being treated with the disregard as the British treated colonists' homes during the execution of general warrants.

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Filed Under: 4th amendment, houses, mobile phones, privacy, warrants

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Jan 2016 @ 7:46am

    I think the plain view standard makes sense. If you want to keep something important secure in your house, you put it in a lockbox or safe. You can do the same digitally by using encryption. Given that any digital file can be any type of data, there's really no practical way to narrow a search warrant on a digital medium.

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