Michigan Supreme Court Reinforces Warrant Requirement to Search a Cell Phone a Second Time for Different Activity

Original Case Details

The defendant in this case was convicted at trial of armed robbery. This conviction occurred after two previous trials that both ended in mistrials due to hung juries. According to court records, in early August 2016, a man went for a walk and met a woman on the street. They talked and he invited her back to his house. At the house, the woman offered to perform sexual acts on the man for $50. The man agreed and opened a safe containing $4,200 in cash and other valuables and pulled out a $50 for the woman, telling her he would give it to her after the night was over. The woman then called a drug dealer to come over and sell her and the man drugs. The defendant then allegedly came over later and sold them crack cocaine and left. Later, the defendant allegedly returned with a gun and stole the man’s safe.

About a week after this, a detective got a warrant to search the defendant’s property for evidence related to separate criminal allegations of drug trafficking. Upon executing the warrant, the police seized the defendant’s phone. The phone’s data was extracted and categorized, resulting in a 600-page report on the defendant’s phone. Evidence related to drug trafficking was searched. The phone was later searched again when the prosecutor in the armed robbery case asked the police to search the report using different search terms related only to the armed robbery case. Using information gained from the search of the phone information, the prosecutor was able to get a conviction at the third trial. This resulted in a sentence of 25-60 years in prison.

Fourth Amendment Warrant Requirement

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides people the right to be free from unreasonable searches of their persons, houses, papers, and effects. Under the Fourth Amendment warrants shall only be issued upon probable cause, supported by oath and describing the place to be searched and the things to be seized. An important requirement that the Fourth Amendment gives is that of particularity. For a warrant to be issued, the police must tell the judge what they intend to search, and why they intend to search there. If the judge is satisfied, then a warrant will be issued for that specific purpose and reasoning.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In this case, the prosecutor in an unrelated armed robbery case went to an evidence locker and requested a search to be done relating to the armed robbery case. The phone was initially seized and searched due to the warrant for drug trafficking allegations. The Supreme Court in this case held that the search conducted for the armed robbery case exceeded the scope of the warrant that was issued for the phone. If the prosecutor wanted to search the phone for evidence of an armed robbery, then the prosecutor and police needed to get a new warrant that allows for the search of that specific information. The Supreme Court noted the need to remain vigilant on the level of particularity needed for search warrants, especially with digital devices. Digital devices have the capability to carry most all of our personal information, photos, and other data. To give the police limitless access once one warrant is issued can lead to wide-ranging invasions of privacy and unreasonable searched. The Court then found that the search was unreasonable and outside the scope of the warrant.

How Does This Affect Me?

If you carry a smartphone, then this can apply to you directly. Today’s cell phones have powerful capabilities to store, process, and access information. Our lives are on our cell phones. Between all of the apps we use, our daily movements and activities can be tracked and obtained by the police if a warrant is issued describing what should be searched. If the police do not have a particularized reasoning to search something, then they will likely not be awarded a search warrant.

If the police are awarded a search warrant, then they can only search based on the allowance given in that warrant. If police are searching for a stolen car, then they likely won’t be allowed to go rummaging through your house. If police are given a warrant to search for a stolen car, then they can only search where a car could reasonably be found. Under this ruling, the Supreme Court discussed the endless amount of private data that is at risk when a search warrant is issued for a smartphone device. To search a smartphone, the police will need particularized reason to search for specific evidence. If you have legal questions, then call us at Grabel & Associates so we can help!

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