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.
What’s the most inconsequential criminal offense in North Carolina? My personal favorite is sale of immature apples, a Class 3 misdemeanor under G.S. 106-189.2. But take a look at the list of Class 3 misdemeanors compiled by the Sentencing Commission and make your case in the comments.
Whatever your answer, now consider this: could a court properly issue a search warrant if there were probable cause to believe that evidence of a very minor crime was in a person’s home? Suppose that a sheriff’s office receives a report that a vendor is selling immature apples at a farmers’ market. A deputy applies for a search warrant for the home of the vendor in question on the basis that she likely has receipts and other evidence of the crime in her house. May a judicial official issue the warrant? Or are there some offenses that are so minor that the “cure” of the search warrant is worse than the “disease” of allowing the crime to go unpunished?
When a search warrant application fails to establish probable cause, the problem isn’t normally that the applicant didn’t have probable cause. It’s that the applicant failed to include important facts that he or she knew. An example of the phenomenon is State v. Lewis, decided this week by the court of appeals.
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?
Shea blogged last week about State v. Terrell, a case in which the defendant’s girlfriend saw on one of the defendant’s USB drives an “image of [the girlfriend’s] nine-year-old granddaughter sleeping without a shirt.” She called the police, and an officer found additional images of “partially or fully nude minors” on the drive. The officer sought and obtained a search warrant that led to the discovery of child pornography. Shea’s post, and the case itself, focused on the officer’s initial warrantless search and whether it was justified under the private search doctrine. But the court’s recitation of the facts reminded me of another common issue in child pornography cases: how much information about an image must an officer provide in order to establish probable cause that the image constitutes child pornography?
The North Carolina Supreme Court in State v. Lowe (December 21, 2016) ruled that a search warrant validly authorized a search of a vehicle parked on the driveway of the premises and within its curtilage, and it reversed a contrary ruling by the Court of Appeals (State v. Lowe, 774 S.E.2d 893, 21 July 2015). This post discusses the supreme court’s ruling.
Sometimes officers have probable cause to believe that a person committed a crime, have probable cause that evidence of the crime will be found in the person’s residence, and seek a search warrant for the address at which the residence is located, but fail to include in the application a statement that the address in question is, in fact, the suspect’s home. What happens then?
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?
G.S. 15A-245 provides that information other than that contained in a search warrant affidavit may not be considered by the issuing official in determining whether probable cause exists to issue the warrant unless the information is either recorded or contemporaneously summarized in the record or on the face of the warrant by the issuing official. This is commonly known as the “four corners” rule because the issuing official and later a judge at a suppression hearing may only consider information within the four corners of the search warrant (with the limited exception mentioned above). The issue does not arise often in appellate court opinions. However, it was involved in the June 21, 2016, North Carolina Court Appeals case of State v. Brown, available here, and is the subject of this post.
Here’s a question that comes up from time to time: May a search warrant issue for a residence in which an apparent suicide has taken place, in order to rule out the possibility of foul play? Generally, I don’t think so, for the reasons given below.