Court: Unsupported Assertions And Broad Language Aren't Enough To Support Cell Phone Searches

from the this-isn't-a-box-of-papers-in-an-unused-outbuilding dept

Another court has stepped up to inform law enforcement that just because criminals are known to use cell phones doesn't mean any cell phone possessed by a suspect is fair game -- warrant or no warrant.

This time it's the Superior Court of Delaware making the point. In its suppression of evidence found on a seized cell phone, the Superior Court makes it clear that cell phones are used by everyone -- not just criminals. Not only that, but if an officer is going to seek a warrant that effectively allows them access to the owner's entire life, the warrant needs to contain more specifics and limitations than this one did.

During a consensual search of an apartment where a homicide suspect (Qualeel Westcott) was staying, police came across heroin and three mobile phones. All three of the phones were seized. A warrant was obtained to search the content of the phones. But a warrant alone isn't good enough. While a warrant is better than nothing at all, the warrant here -- according to the court -- barely exceeded "nothing at all."

While the court does recognize [PDF] there's a good likelihood that phones possessed by suspects will often contain useful evidence of criminal activity, it takes far more than the bare bones assertions made by the officer obtaining the warrant, which did almost nothing to establish a relationship between the phone and suspected criminal activity. (via

[H]owever, Detective Sergeant Horsman did not expressly state any nexus between Mr. Westcott's ownership of the mobile phone and the existence of evidence of the crimes (including a confession) on that mobile phone. Although the magistrate may draw reasonable inferences from the factual allegations of the affidavit, the leap required here is a long one. The mere fact that a defendant owns a mobile phone is not, in and of itself, sufficient to warrant an inference that evidence of any crime he or she commits may be found on that mobile phone. The affidavit did not provide probable cause for a search.

The court goes on to point out that even if Sergeant Horsman had managed to do a better job establishing a nexus, the warrant would still fail because of how broadly written it was. State law, along with judicial precedent, have set the bar higher for warrants seeking information stored in citizens' cell phones. As the Supreme Court pointed out in its Riley decision, phones are not simply "containers" that can be rifled through with a minimum of particularity. They are people's "entire lives." With that in mind, the warrant sought in this case is an abject failure.

Here, the search warrant authorizes a search of all "data and cellular logs." This description does not limit the scope of the officer's search of the mobile phones to relevant material and does not place any limitation on the types of "data, media, and files" to be searched.

There is also no temporal limitation on the search. The police alleged that the shooting occurred on May 11 and the presence of heroin at the apartment provided probable cause for its recent distribution. The police should have sought a more limited search warrant permitting the search of suitably recent data from the phones.

Instead, the application sought a general search "of the three phones." The warrant thus provides broad permission to rummage through the entire digital lives of the phones' owners. Accordingly, it does not contain the level of particularity required under the Constitution of the United States, the Delaware Constitution, or Delaware statute.

Yes, it's true that criminals use cell phones. That makes them indistinguishable from a majority of the United States' population. But the wealth of information stored in the average cell phone makes them far different than a filing cabinet or a cardboard box full of personal papers. Courts are doing a (slightly) better job at demanding more from law enforcement officers when they seek to access these contents. The first part of it is to establish something more than "criminals use cell phones" when seeking a warrant. The second part is even more important: limiting the search to just what's needed to uncover evidence related to the criminal act. Particularity is a must. Without it, a cell phone search warrant is nothing more than a boilerplate-backed Law Enforcement Fishing Expedition (Short Form).

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: 4th amendment, delaware, law enforcement, phone searches, privacy

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 16 Feb 2017 @ 5:53pm

    Nonsense ruling

    The warrant was clearly very specific, it only covered everything on three phones, rather than everything on every phone.

    Really, some people, judges included apparently, will nitpick on the most insane points in their attempts to stop the paragons of justice from doing their jobs...

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.