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Appellate court rules cellphone search warrant too broad for home

If the police have a search warrant for a small item like a cellphone, they can search anywhere in the designated area where such an item might be hidden. So, getting a warrant to search for a cellphone seems like an ideal way to get the chance to search someone's entire home.

Fortunately, search warrants must always be supported by probable cause. This is more than just a hunch. It is sufficient information to convince a reasonable person that evidence of a crime will be found in the location specified.

Pointing out that someone is suspected of a crime and has a cellphone is insufficient. In a recent appellate case, the police didn't even go that far, however. They didn't even bother to ascertain that the defendant owned a cellphone before seeking a warrant to search his residence for any cellphones and electronic devices.

"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," said the majority of a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The D.C. Circuit doesn't hold any official sway over California, but it is considered quite influential. It is often the source of future Supreme Court justices, and it has jurisdiction over much of what federal agencies do. California and the Ninth Circuit are likely to take the D.C. Circuit's opinions very seriously.

The case before the court involved a man who was suspected of being a getaway driver in a local murder. The D.C. police seem never to have made a case against him for that, but they did find something unexpected in the search.

Either during or just before the search, a gun was thrown from a window of the residence. The man had a felony criminal record, so this meant being charged with unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. He was convicted.

Because the search warrant was defective, according to the court, that conviction has now been overturned. The court ruled that the warrant was unconstitutionally broad, and the government is not allowed to benefit from violating the constitutional rights of citizens. Therefore, the gun was found as a result of a bad search warrant and could not be used as evidence.

Whenever the government engages in questionable search practices, it runs the risk of violating people's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. We have the right to expect law enforcement to protect our rights, not violate them.

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