Case Summary and Outcome
The Southern Division of the District Court of South Dakota granted the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence from his cell phone which the government had obtained without a warrant from a prior search by law enforcement in an unrelated investigation.
In reaching its decision the Court drew on a Supreme Court ruling that cell phones are distinguishable from other physical objects incidentally found on arrestees because they “contain immense amounts of personal information about people’s lives, they are unique, and law officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting such a search.” The court said that to hold otherwise would open the door to pretextual searches of a person’s cell phone for evidence of other crimes with no limit on the government’s use or retention of unresponsive cell phone data collected under a valid warrant. This would be inconsistent with the protections of the Fourth Amendment from unreasonable search and seizure.
Defendant Robert Hulscher was initially investigated and charged with state crimes of forgery, counterfeiting, and identity thefts. During the investigation, the Police Department of Huron, South Dakota obtained a warrant to search his cellphone data, including text messages, phone calls, and photos. The investigating officer later made a digital copy of the extracted data and stored it at the police department.
Hulscher was then separately charged with two counts of federal crimes for stealing and unlawfully possessing firearms. In preparation for his federal trial, an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) reached out to the Huron Police Department to gain access to the same data. He later obtained a complete copy and reviewed the extracted data without a search warrant.
In response to the government’s intent to use the data as evidence, Hulscher filed a motion to suppress for violation his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure of his personal effects. A magistrate judge issued an evidentiary recommendation in favor of the motion. The government appealed to the U.S. District Court of South Dakota.
The first issue before the Court was whether a subsequent review of a copy of phone data that had been originally collected pursuant to an unrelated warrant constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Despite the lack of precedent on this issue, the Court said that there were two obvious choices: either treat searches of copies just like searches of originals or else treat copies merely as data stored on government-owned property. The government argued for the latter, namely that cell phone data can be shared among law enforcement agencies like a box of physical evidence.
The Court relied on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014) that police officers “must generally secure a warrant” before searching the arrestee’s cellphone because today’s mobile phones store immense amounts of personal information and are distinguishable from other physical objects incidentally found on arrestees: “The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions . . . .” On this basis, the District Court dismissed the government’s argument that it was “impractical and contrary to the nature of police work and collaborative law enforcement among different agencies” to have to secure a warrant before searching an arrestee’s cell phone which, it said, would open the door to pretextual or broad searches of a person’s cell phone for evidence of other crimes with no limit on the government’s use or retention of unresponsive or unrelated cell phone data collected under a valid warrant. This would be inconsistent with the protections of the Fourth Amendment from unreasonable search and seizure.
The Court also dismissed the government’s argument for the “plain view” doctrine to be applied because that rule was only applicable when law enforcement had a prior justification for a search and comes across a piece of incriminating evidence. It said the ATF did not have sufficient justification to search the complete, unsegregated iPhone data.
In applying the exclusionary rule of the Fourth Amendment, the court weighed the benefits against the costs of excluding the data as substantive evidence. It found the potential cost, such as releasing a guilty defendant, was minimal because the copy of Hulscher’s data was not directly related to the underlying federal offenses and the government was already prepared to go to trial on the basis of the evidence it had which suggested that the additional evidence was not necessary for a conviction.
Based on the foregoing analysis, the Court adopted the recommendation of the magistrate judge and granted Hulscher’s motion to suppress.