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Court rules warrant for cellphone is unconstitutionally broad

If the police suspect you of a crime, is that enough to justify a warrant to search your home for whatever cellphones and electronic devices you may own? No, it's not, according to a recent federal appeals court decision. If they could, that would open the homes of all suspects to extensive searches, which would be unconstitutional.

The ruling comes from the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over the District of Columbia and many actions by federal agencies. Although it doesn't have jurisdiction over North Carolina, federal courts in our area are likely to give substantial weight to the ruling.

The case involved a man whom the D.C. police suspected of being a getaway driver in a murder. It seems they were never able to tie him to that crime, but that did not keep him from being charged with -- and convicted of -- a crime.

The police were able to obtain a warrant to search the man's residence for his cellphone and other electronic devices. They didn't give specific information about why they suspected his cellphone contained incriminating information. In fact, they didn't even verify that he owned a cellphone. Instead, they managed to obtain the warrant based on the idea that most people own cellphones and that they are a good place to find evidence.

That is not sufficient. Search warrants require probable cause, which is specific knowledge or information pointing to the probable location of evidence. A hunch is not enough. Nor is the fact that the subject of the warrant is suspected of criminal activity in general.

Moreover, letting the police enter a residence and search it for something like a cellphone or an electronic device is essentially the same as letting them search for anything they want. Since cellphones and electronics are small, the police could search anywhere in the designated residence where such an item might be hidden.

In this case, the police found a gun which had apparently been thrown from a window before the search. The defendant had a criminal record, so the gun got him charged and convicted for unlawful possession of a firearm.

The three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2 to 1 that the warrant was unconstitutionally vague. Therefore, any evidence found as its result had to be suppressed. This is because the government is not allowed to benefit from violating people's constitutional rights.

"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 ruling.

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