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State Appeals Court Says Exigency Beats A Warrant Requirement If A Phone Has A Passcode

DATE POSTED:July 11, 2018

The Supreme Court's Riley decision made one thing clear: cellphones are not to be searched without a warrant. Somehow, the Georgia Court of Appeals has reached a different conclusion than the Supreme Court of the United States, even as it cites the ruling. [h/t Andrew Fleischman]

It's a decision [PDF] that's decidedly law enforcement-friendly. And it's one that will pair nicely with the FBI's overblown "going dark" assertions. An arrested individual requested his phone so he could retrieve a phone number to give to the officers questioning him. Here's what happened once he had retrieved that info.

Once [Stephens] unlocked his phone, got the information that he needed, the phone was recovered from [Stephens] at that point. It had not locked out, and having the open pass code at that point, . . . I took the phone down the hall to one of our investigators that’s tech savvy and asked him to plug the phone in and do a phone dump, dump the information without reviewing the information and without advising me of anything if he even got anything off of the dump, that the purpose would be for me to be able to obtain a search warrant for the content of the phone. The experience we have is if the phone goes back to password protection, we’re not able to get into it.

A warrant was sought after the data had already been downloaded. Included in the data dump were photos of a gun prosecutors introduced as evidence. The suppression motion challenged the warrantless search. The lower court found a warrant should have been obtained before the data dump began.

The trial court recognized that Stephens had “a right to privacy in the contents of his cell phone,” and also further acknowledged that per Riley v. California, __ U. S. __ (134 SCt 2473, 189 LE2d 430) (2014), “the police may no longer, without a warrant, search such a phone when seized from an arrestee.”

But it also found the officers had a justifiable excuse for the warrantless data grab.

The trial court, however, found that post Riley, “[e]xigent circumstances – such as the risk of imminent loss of data through a remote wipe of the phone – can justify a warrantless search of a seized cell phone.” And, similarly, according to the trial court, police may “take steps to preserve the digital evidence stored in a cell phone while awaiting judicial authorization to search that evidence.” The trial court held that the measure taken here by police of downloading or “dumping” the contents from Stephens’s cell phone without looking at the contents, was permissible under Riley as a “protective step, taken solely to preserve evidence the detective reasonably believed could be destroyed.”

The appeals court sees the trial court's interpretation of Riley and raises.

Here, pretermitting whether the trial court correctly found that the warrantless downloading of the contents of Stephens’s cell phone was permissible under the exigencies exception to the Fourth Amendment, we hold that even if an unlawful search occurred, the evidence acquired from the downloading was admissible under the independent source doctrine.

[...]

Thus, even assuming that the initial downloading was an unconstitutional search, the information subject to the motion to suppress was obtained through the execution of a valid search warrant.

There you have it: two exceptions to the bright line drawn by the Supreme Court. Riley said warrants are needed to search cellphones. The Georgia Appeals Court agrees, but holds that as long as a warrant is obtained at some point in time, the search can happen prior to the acquisition of a warrant.

In this particular case, there's appears to be minimal intrusion. The information used during the trial wasn't acquired until after a search warrant was obtained, at least according to officers' testimony. But allowing searches to take place prior to the acquisition of a warrant encourages bad behavior -- like checking out data dumps for evidence first and building a warrant request around that, rather than the facts known to officers prior to the (warrantless) search.

It also encourages fishing expeditions because a warrantless search has no boundaries. Warrant requests and the judges that approve them set the limitations on the scope of searches, restricting them to only evidence relevant to the criminal allegations laid out in the affidavit. Working backwards from a search to a warrant means the government can redraft its warrant request prior to delivering it to a judge if it sees something else that might make for a better prosecution.

In this case, no search of the data dump occurred before the warrant arrived. That's good but it's not exactly Riley. Exigent circumstances could theoretically apply to any case involving a phone with a passcode, eliminating the warrant requirement and turning it into an afterthought. "Independent source" does the same thing, granting forgiveness for the constitutional violation as long as a warrant is sought post-search. This hole in Riley is somewhat narrowed by the court noting the warrant request wasn't based on any info derived from the data dump. But that only applies to the specifics of this case and that assumes officers won't lie about the chain of events or engage in parallel construction.

It also invites officers to use the "going dark" theory of unbreakable encryption to claim exigent circumstances guide phone searches, rather than the warrant requirement SCOTUS handed down. With cellphone encryption, any momentarily-unlocked phone creates a convenient "exigent circumstance" that's unlikely to be seriously challenged by courts. Even if other tools and workarounds can be used to crack a locked phone, the presence of one temporarily free of roadblocks will be searched to ensure maximum operational efficiency, rather than adherence to the Fourth Amendment as defined by the Riley decision.

This is a bad call by the Appeals Court. It could have found a way to deter future abuse without actually suppressing the evidence. Instead, it gave Georgia law enforcement a road map for warrantless phone searches.



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