How long can police hold a person’s cell phone without searching it or giving back? US v. Pratt

How long can police hold a person’s cell phone without searching it or giving back? US v. Pratt

We reviewed a number of cases dealing with the length of time police can seize (hold) a person during a traffic stop. You can watch those videos here: https://youtu.be/EpxfPYHG2vc

This case deals with a seizure of personal property (namely a cellphone) and the length of time police has to search the property. In United States v. Pratt, 915 F.3d 266 (4th Cir. 2019), the FBI were investigating a prostitution ring.

FBI agents confronted Mr. Pratt, who was holding an iPhone. Pratt told the agent that the phone was his. The agent asked if Pratt had nude photos of the underage prostitute he was pimping on the phone. Pratt responded “yes, I’ve got pictures of her on the phone.”

The agent then seized the phone, telling Pratt the FBI would get a search warrant. Pratt refused to consent to the seizure or disclose the phone’s passcode. And the FBI didn’t get a warrant to search the phone until March 4, 2016—a full 31 days after seizing it. When agents finally searched the phone, they found nude images of the underage woman and incriminating text conversations with the underage woman and others.

The constitutional question is whether the extended seizure of Pratt’s phone was reasonable. A seizure that is “lawful at its inception can nevertheless violate the Fourth Amendment because its manner of execution unreasonably infringes possessory interests.” United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 124 (1984) (citing United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696 (1983)). To determine if an extended seizure violates the Fourth Amendment, we balance the government’s interest in the seizure against the individual’s possessory interest in the object seized. See Place, 462 U.S. at 703; United States v. Van Leeuwen, 397 U.S. 249, 252–53 (1970).

Given Pratt’s undiminished interest, a 31-day delay violates the Fourth Amendment where the government neither proceeds diligently nor presents an overriding reason for the delay.

The government’s alternative argument that it could retain the phone indefinitely because it had independent evidentiary value, like a murder weapon. Only the phone’s files had evidentiary value. The agents could have removed or copied incriminating files and returned the phone. The phone itself is evidence of nothing.

Full Opinion here: http://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/Opinions/174489.P.pdf

Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
LAWSTACHE™ LAW FIRM | Criminal Defense and Business Law
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