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Appeals court: Home search for cellphone is too broad for warrant

An influential federal appeals court has ruled that a judge erred when granting a search warrant for a cellphone. That search warrant granted police the authority to search a man's residence for any cellphones or electronic devices he might own, and the court said the warrant was unconstitutionally vague.

The ruling comes from the influential District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. Although the D.C. Circuit doesn't have jurisdiction over Arizona, it is considered one of the dominant courts in the nation because it has jurisdiction over many actions by federal agencies. Its rulings don't directly apply in Arizona, but our Ninth Circuit is likely to give the opinion significant weight.

The case at issue involved a man who was suspected of driving a getaway vehicle in a murder case. It seems he was never implicated in that case, but the overly broad search warrant did turn up evidence of a crime. The officers serving the warrant found a gun which had apparently been tossed from a window just before the search.

Because the defendant had a serious criminal record and was prohibited from owning a gun, he was charged and convicted for unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.

What the police had failed to do was show probable cause for searching the man's home and cellphone. For one thing, they didn't even verify that the defendant owned a cellphone, much less give specific information about why they suspected the phone contained evidence.

More significantly, giving police broad authority to search someone's residence for a small item such as a cellphone essentially gives them the right to search the home completely. This is because searching would be allowed anywhere the cellphone might be hidden.

"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 opinion.

In general, the courts consider your residence to have the highest protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. It might be convenient for police to be allowed to search the home of any suspect, but that would violate the Fourth Amendment's protections.

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