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Appeals court limits warrants to search homes for cellphones

The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals may not have jurisdiction over Texas, but the court is considered highly influential. For one, it's located in the District and has traditionally been a place presidents look for potential Supreme Court nominees. For another, it holds sway over many of the actions of federal agencies. Texas and the Fifth Circuit are likely to give the D.C. Circuit's opinions a great deal of weight in their own considerations.

That's why it's interesting to us here that the D.C. Circuit just threw out one man's conviction even though the evidence against him was obtained via a search warrant. That warrant, the court held, was far too broad to be constitutional.

The case involved a man who had been suspected of being a getaway driver in a murder. The police apparently failed to tie him to that event, but he still got in trouble. The police obtained a warrant to search his home for cellphones and other electronic devices, which would have allowed them essentially to search the entire home, including any space where such devices might be hidden.

Just before or during that search, a gun was apparently thrown from a window of the man's residence. The police collected this phone and charged the man with unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. He was convicted.

The D.C. Circuit found that search warrant to be too broad, especially because the police hadn't actually determined that the man owned a cellphone before seeking a warrant for it.

"The assumption that most people own a cell phone would not automatically justify an open-ended warrant to search a home anytime officers seek a person's phone," reads the 2-1 opinion.

To obtain a search warrant, police are required to show probable cause -- specific, individualized reasons that objectively show why evidence of a crime is likely to be found in the place to be searched. The mere fact that someone is suspected of a crime and has a residence is not sufficient justification to search that residence. The same goes for a cellphone; it's not enough to say that most people have cellphones and that evidence is often found on them. Probable cause requires more than statistical likelihood or hunches by the police.

Therefore, the gun cannot be used as evidence because the police violated the defendant's constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. The government is not allowed to benefit from constitutional violations. Without that gun as evidence, his conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm could not be sustained.

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