Normally, the Fourth Amendment requires that police obtain a search warrant before officers may search a person’s phone or computer. But the person can waive his or her Fourth Amendment rights by consenting to a search without a warrant. The scope of a person’s consent is determined by what a “typical reasonable person [would] have understood by the exchange between the officer and the suspect.” Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248 (1991). Applying that test, if an officer asks a suspect for consent to search the suspect’s home, and the suspect agrees, does that allow the officer to search any digital devices located inside the residence?
I’ve had several questions lately about the requirement in G.S. 15A-248 that “[a] search warrant must be executed within 48 hours from the time of issuance.” The specific concern is how this applies to searches of digital devices, which frequently require off-site forensic analysis that may not begin, let alone end, until substantially more than 48 hours after issuance of the warrant. Although we don’t have an appellate case on point in North Carolina, courts in other jurisdictions have held that so long as the initial seizure of the device is timely, the forensic analysis may be conducted later.
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.
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.