Limits of the 4th Amendment in an iPhone Culture

By January 1, 2012Drug Crimes

Does the 4th Amendment apply to a Cell Phone Search?

Search of cell phonesBoy, do we love our cellphones.  They are our phone books, our computers, our gaming systems, our cameras, our music players, you name it.  When a person’s cell phone is such a multifaceted device, how can that affect their legal rights under a search warrant?  Read the summary of the case below to find out more about how the 4th Amendment applies to a cell phone search.

United States v. Aguirre, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (Federal), December 13, 2011

In this case, Appellant was convicted of using a communications facility to facilitate a drug trafficking crime in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b).  On appeal, she challenges the district court’s denial of her motion to suppress evidence, claiming that the search and seizure of her cell phone was tainted by law enforcement officers’ illegal entry into a home where she was a guest.  The 5th Circuit found her arguments unpersuasive and affirmed the judgment.

Federal agents arrested a drug suspect shortly after he drove away from his home and they recovered marijuana and cocaine from his car.  The agents went back to the suspect’s home to conduct a knock and talk interview with the remaining occupants.  After knocking on the door and announcing themselves, the agents received no verbal response but did see a person look through the window, then quickly retreat toward the back of the home.  Fearing the destruction of drug evidence, the officers immediately entered the home without a warrant or consent.  Once inside the home the agents saw marijuana and drug paraphernalia in plain sight.  The agents secured the home and the occupants while they applied for a search warrant.  After obtaining the search warrant, the agents searched Appellant’s cell phone that was lying in plain view on a bed, and discovered several incriminating text messages.

The court held that the agents’ warrantless entry into the home was lawful.  First, they had probable cause to believe it contained evidence of illegal drugs and drug dealing.  Agents had just arrested the first drug suspect, after watching him leave the home, and had recovered marijuana and cocaine from his car.  Second, after knocking and announcing their presence, the reaction of the remaining occupants reasonably caused the agents to believe that evidence was being destroyed.  The agents’ entry into the home was justified by the exigent circumstance of destruction of evidence and supported by probable cause.

Appellant argued that the search and seizure of her cell phone was improper because the warrant did not particularly describe it as one of the items to be seized.  The court noted that while the Fourth Amendment requires that a warrant particularly describe the place to be searched and the person or thing to be seized, each item does not need to be precisely described in the warrant.  The particularity requirement can be satisfied where a seized item is not specifically named in the warrant, but the functional equivalent of other items are adequately described.  Here, the agents were authorized to search for items used to facilitate drug trafficking to include records, correspondence, address books and telephone directories.  While this list did not include cell phones, the court held that cellular text messages, the directory and call logs of Appellant’s cell phone could be characterized as the functional equivalent of several items included in the search warrant such as: correspondence, address books and telephone directories.  Appellant’s cell phone served as the equivalent of records and documentation of sales or other drug activities and as such, the agents lawfully searched it under the authority of the search warrant.

I suppose this ruling was just a matter of time in our iPhone culture.