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 Community Caretaking

The court of appeals just decided another case on the community caretaking doctrine. It’s the fourth published community caretaking case in the last five years, and there have been a couple of unpublished ones as well. The activity in the appellate division suggests that the doctrine is being invoked much more frequently in the trial courts. This post explains the new case and provides a quick refresher on the older ones.

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Supreme Court: Driver of Rental Car, Not Listed on Rental Agreement, Has Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

A week ago today, the Supreme Court of the United States resolved a circuit split and ruled that a person driving a rental car, but not listed on the rental agreement, has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle . . . at least sometimes. The case is Byrd v. United States.

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When Is a Residence Abandoned under the Fourth Amendment?

An officer normally needs a search warrant to search a residence, unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies. That’s because residences are protected by a reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment. But what about residences that lie vacant and in disrepair? At what point do they become abandoned such that the reasonable expectation of privacy no longer applies?

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Particularly Describing the Evidence to Be Seized under a Search Warrant

The Fourth Amendment states in part that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The reference to a particular description of the place to be searched and the things to be seized is called the particularity requirement. As it pertains to the things to be seized, the Supreme Court’s most famous exposition of the requirement is in Marron v. United States, 275 U.S. 192 (1927), where it opined that the requirement “makes general searches . . . impossible and prevents the seizure of one thing under a warrant describing another.  As to what is to be taken, nothing is left to the discretion of the officer executing the warrant.”

In practice, officers regularly seek search warrants with catchall provisions. For example, in a drug case, an officer may seek authorization to seize drugs, paraphernalia, customer lists, and “any and all other evidence connected to drug activity.” Are catchall statements like these consistent with the particularity requirement?

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When a Person Commits a Crime, Is There Probable Cause to Search the Person’s Phone for Evidence?

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?

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Questions and Resources about Searches of Cloud Storage

If a law enforcement officer obtains a search warrant for a suspect’s cell phone, may the officer use the phone to access cloud storage to which it is linked? For example, may the officer click on the Dropbox icon on the phone’s home screen and see what’s there?

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Supreme Court of North Carolina: Officer Did Not Improperly Extend a Traffic Stop by Frisking a Driver and Ordering the Driver into a Patrol Car

In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015). Rodriguez held that it was improper for an officer to extend a traffic stop for several minutes in order to conduct a dog sniff of the stopped vehicle. More generally, the decision requires an officer to pursue the “mission” of a traffic stop diligently, without measurably extending the duration of the stop for investigative activity unrelated to the purpose of the stop.

Our court of appeals has issued several decisions under Rodriguez, including some in defendants’ favor. Everyone has been waiting for those cases to make their way to the state supreme court. Now one has, and it turns out that the supreme court’s understanding of Rodriguez differs considerably from the view adopted by at least some panels of the court of appeals.

The case in question is State v. Bullock, __ N.C. __, __ S.E.2d __, 2017 WL 5017435 (2017), and this post explores it further.

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New Book on Traffic Stops and Offenses

I’m pleased to announce that the School of Government has just released a new book entitled Pulled Over: The Law of Traffic Stops and Offenses in North Carolina. Shea Denning, Christopher Tyner, and I are the authors. It’s an important topic given that North Carolina officers conduct more than a million traffic stops each year and that many criminal cases, small and large, begin with a motor vehicle stop. This post provides more information about the book.

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