Delays in Obtaining Search Warrants for Digital Devices

There have been several recent cases regarding delays in obtaining search warrants for digital devices that have been lawfully seized. For example, in United States v. Pratt, 915 F.3d 266 (4th Cir. 2019), officers seized a suspect’s phone based on the suspect’s admission that it contained nude pictures of an underage girl. The opinion doesn’t say, but I assume that the basis of the seizure was risk of destruction of evidence. However, the officers didn’t obtain a search warrant for the phone for 31 days. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit ruled that the delay was unreasonable in violation of the Fourth Amendment. It turns out that Pratt isn’t alone.

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Can a Magistrate Issue a Search Warrant for a Computer or a Cell 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.

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Computer Technicians’ Duty to Report Child Pornography

Last week, I blogged about the application of the private search doctrine in child pornography cases. I noted that one recent case began when a computer repair technician contacted police to report child pornography on a computer he was repairing. A story about the case stated that “North Carolina law requires computer technicians to report any such images found during the course of their work to local law enforcement or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.” I didn’t know that, so I did some research.

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Article for Officers and Others on Search Warrants for Digital Devices

Years ago, the School of Government did quite a bit of training for the Highway Patrol and other law enforcement officers. These days, we focus most of our criminal law courses on judges, lawyers, and magistrates. But I still view officers as an important audience for our work, and I recently wrote an article for Police Chief magazine that is meant to help officers obtain valid search warrants for digital devices.

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Returns and Inventories for Computer Search Warrants

More and more criminal investigations involve searches of computers and other digital devices. It is sometimes difficult to apply long-established search and seizure law to the practical realities of digital investigations. One example of this phenomenon concerns the preparation of the return and the inventory after the execution of a search warrant,  a topic of … Read more


What Are Permissible Discovery Sanctions Against the Defendant?

In State v. Cooper, issued last week, the Court of Appeals reversed the defendant’s conviction for first-degree murder of his wife and ordered a new trial. The case has drawn considerable media attention; recent news reports indicate that the State intends to petition the state Supreme Court for review. This blog post focuses on one … Read more


Damage to a Computer

A caller recently asked this: If a defendant throws another person’s computer against the wall and breaks it, can the defendant be charged with the felony of Damaging a Computer? We probably all agree that this conduct constitutes injury to personal property. The question about the computer offense however sent me running to my book, … Read more

Computer Restrictions on Supervised Sex Offenders

Last week I wrote about the North Carolina law that makes it a crime for any registered sex offender to use a commercial social network, G.S. 14-202.5. In that post I noted that similar laws in other states have been overturned or limited on First Amendment grounds, and that litigation on the constitutionality of our … Read more

Warrant Searches of Computers

Last week, I posted a paper about warrantless searches of computers and electronic devices. Today, I’m posting its companion: this paper about warrant searches of computers, which I have just finished updating today. Although the paper focuses on computers, the principles discussed in the paper apply equally to other electronic devices. It turns out that … Read more

Warrantless Searches of Computers and Other Electronic Devices

I keep a list of cases from across the country on warrantless searches of computers and other electronic devices. It covers topics like searches of cellular phones incident to arrest, whether consent to search a residence includes consent to search the computers therein, and whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in an employer-issued … Read more