The Abandonment of Digital Devices

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.

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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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Update on Fingerprints, Phones, and the Fifth Amendment

Can a court order a suspect to use the suspect’s fingerprint to unlock his or her smartphone? Or would that violate the suspect’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination? I wrote about that issue here. This post updates the previous one with two new cases and some additional discussion.

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Supreme Court: Can’t Search Cell Phones Incident to Arrest

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