Our cell phones and laptops normally are subject to a reasonable expectation of privacy, meaning that police cannot search them without a search warrant or an applicable exception to the warrant requirement. But when a person abandons a digital device, he or she relinquishes that expectation of privacy and police may examine the device without a warrant or an exception. This post discusses when a device has been abandoned and explores several common fact patterns.
While preparing to teach a recent class about search warrants for digital devices, I spoke with a number of experts in digital forensics. Each conversation was very helpful. Almost all of them touched on an issue I’d never previously considered: whether search warrants for cell phones do or may include the authority to search connected cloud services.
A few weeks ago I participated in a seminar on digital evidence, and one of the topics we discussed was cell phone records (subscriber information, call detail records, historical location data, etc.). That’s not surprising, since the widespread use of cell phones has made these records an increasingly common and important tool in criminal cases. Location data can help prove that the defendant was in the victim’s house at the time of the murder, call logs can help prove the co-conspirators were in regular contact with each other, and so on.
What did surprise me was when I asked a group of 75+ prosecutors how often they have used an affidavit to authenticate these kinds of records and get them admitted into evidence, without the need for live testimony by a witness from the company? Only one prosecutor had ever done so, and that was in a case with a pro se defendant. There seemed to be a lot of confusion about (i) whether this was even possible, (ii) old rules vs. new rules, and (iii) state court vs. federal court, so I thought this post would be a good opportunity to help clear things up.
The question in the title of this post is one that I’ve been asked lots of times in different factual contexts. The basic question is, given that most people have cell phones, and that people tend to use their phones to document and to communicate about just about everything that they do, is it reasonable to believe that a person who has committed a crime has evidence of that crime on his or her phone?
I’ve been asked several times lately whether it is a good idea for an officer to use his or her personal cell phone to take work-related photographs, such as photographs of a crime scene or photographs of seized items. In this post, I explain why I think that’s OK, so long as it is consistent with agency policy.
Law enforcement officers often seek search warrants for suspects’ cell phones. When they do, judicial officials must determine what sort of evidence is needed to support the issuance of a warrant. Many people have their phones with them at all times, and use their phones to document and discuss every aspect of their daily activities. Does that mean that when an officer has probable cause to believe that a suspect committed a crime, the officer automatically has probable cause to search the suspect’s cell phone for evidence of the crime? Or does the officer need a more specific nexus between the crime and the phone?
I’ve had the same question several times recently: can a magistrate issue a search warrant for a computer or a cell phone? The answer is yes. This post explains why that’s so, and why there’s some confusion about the issue.
Courts around the country have struggled to address inappropriate cell phone usage by jurors. Some judges have used their contempt powers to deal with the issue. In Oregon, a judge held a juror in contempt for texting during a trial, and the juror spent a night in jail as a result. In Florida, a judge cited a juror for contempt for using Facebook during trial. And now, the issue has cropped up here in North Carolina. Last week, Superior Court Judge Milton “Toby” Fitch held a juror in a civil case in contempt for using his cell phone to take notes about the trial, and sentenced the juror to 30 days in jail. The Wilson Times has the story here. The News and Observer has an AP story with some additional details here.
The 2014 Cumulative Supplement to Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina (4th ed. 2011) is now available. It is called a cumulative supplement because it includes the material in the 2013 supplement so you only need the book and the 2014 cumulative supplement to be current. You may order it online here or contact the School of Government Bookstore Manager at 919.966.4120. Continue reading for additional details.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a long-awaited opinion concerning searching cell phones incident to arrest. The Court ruled that the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement doesn’t apply to cell phones. North Carolina law previously allowed such searches, so the opinion is significant. The facts of the cases. The Court ruled on … Read more