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Cell Phones, Residences and Search Warrants

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by: Ryan Scott • January 22, 2018 • no comments

In a recent case, US v. Griffith, the contents of a search warrant affidavit are described as follows:

The bulk of the ten-page affidavit supporting the search warrant explained Griffith's suspected involvement in the homicide committed more than one year beforehand. The affiant, a 22-year veteran of the police department, recounted the evidence and expressed his belief that Griffith had been the getaway driver. The affidavit also described the evidence that Griffith now lived with Lewis in her apartment.

Two sentences in the affidavit then set out the basis for believing incriminating evidence would be discovered in the apartment. Those sentences read as follows:

Based upon your affiant's professional training and experience and your affiant's work with other veteran police officers and detectives, I know that gang/crew members involved in criminal activity maintain regular contact with each other, even when they are arrested or incarcerated, and that they often stay advised and share intelligence about their activities through cell phones and other electronic communication devices and the Internet, to include Facebook, Twitter and E-mail accounts.
Based upon the aforementioned facts and circumstances, and your affiant's experience and training, there is probable cause to believe that secreted inside of [Lewis's apartment] is evidence relating to the homicide discussed above.

Is that enough for probable cause? The federal circuit court ruled as follows:

The government's argument in support of probable cause to search the apartment rests on the prospect of finding one specific item there: a cell phone owned by Griffith. Yet the affidavit supporting the warrant application provided virtually no reason to suspect that Griffith in fact owned a cell phone, let alone that any phone belonging to him and containing incriminating information would be found in the residence. At the same time, the warrant authorized the wholesale seizure of all electronic devices discovered in the apartment, including items owned by third parties. In those circumstances, we conclude that the warrant was unsupported by probable cause and unduly broad in its reach.

The court explains further:

In light of the distinctness of the inquiries, probable cause to arrest a person will not itself justify a warrant to search his property. Regardless of whether an individual is validly suspected of committing a crime, an application for a search warrant concerning his property or possessions must demonstrate cause to believe that “evidence is likely to be found at the place to be searched.” Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 568 (2004). Moreover, “[t]here must, of course, be a nexus ․ between the item to be seized and criminal behavior.” Warden, Md. Penitentiary v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294, 307 (1967).
Those concerns about the distinct requirements for a search warrant are particularly salient in this case, for two reasons. First, the warrant application sought authorization to search a home, which stands at “the very core” of the Fourth Amendment's protections. Silverman v. United States, 365 U.S. 505, 511 (1961); see Groh, 540 U.S. at 559. Second, the scope of a permissible search depends on the specific spaces in which the object of the search might be found. See Maryland v. Garrison, 480 U.S. 79, 84-85 (1987). Authorization to search for an item fitting in the palm of a hand, like a cell phone, thus can entail an intrusive inspection of all corners of a home. (And here, as explained below, officers sought and obtained authorization to continue their search until they found every cell phone and electronic device in the apartment.) This case, in short, involves the prospect of an especially invasive search of an especially protected place.

Wait! Is the court really saying there must be some evidence that this particular suspect owned a cell phone?

That brings us back to the warrant application's reliance on cell phones—in particular, on the possibility that Griffith owned a cell phone, and that his phone would be found in the home and would contain evidence of his suspected offense. With regard to his ownership of a cell phone, it is true that, as the Supreme Court recently said, cell phones are now “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” Riley, 134 S. Ct. at 2484. We do not doubt that most people today own a cell phone.
But the affidavit in this case conveyed no reason to think that Griffith, in particular, owned a cell phone. There was no observation of Griffith's using a cell phone, no information about anyone having received a cell phone call or text message from him, no record of officers recovering any cell phone in his possession at the time of his previous arrest (and confinement) on unrelated charges, and no indication otherwise of his ownership of a cell phone at any time. To the contrary, the circumstances suggested Griffith might have been less likely than others to own a phone around the time of the search: he had recently completed a ten-month period of confinement, during which he of course had no ongoing access to a cell phone; and at least one person in his circle—his potential co-conspirator, Carl Oliphant—was known not to have a cell phone.
We are aware of no case, and the government identifies none, in which police obtained authorization to search a suspect's home for a cell phone without any particularized information that he owned one. In the typical case, officers will have already come into possession of a suspect's phone after seizing it on his person incident to his arrest. See, e.g., id. at 2480-82; United States v. Bass, 785 F.3d 1043, 1049 (6th Cir. 2015). Officers also might receive reliable indication of a suspect's possession of a cell phone. See, e.g., United States v. Mathis, 767 F.3d 1264, 1269 (11th Cir. 2014); United States v. Grupee, 682 F.3d 143, 145-46 (1st Cir. 2012). There was no such information here about Griffith.