Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Minn. Ct. App. affirms suppression of CP images from cell phone, agrees phones may contain a weapon under Terry

In State v. Cooper, No. A12-1027 (Minn. Ct. App. 2013), the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the suppression of images of child pornography found on a cell phone because the search of the phone was not authorized under the search warrant. The warrant specified the search of phones "at the premises," but the phone in question had been seized by police in a traffic stop just prior to the search of the home.

Officers had obtained a search warrant for the defendant's home as part of a drug investigation, and the warrant specifically authorized the search for cell phones "at the premises" which might be used in drug transactions. Because the defendant had two pit bulls, the officers decided to avoid simply walking up to the home. After learning that the defendant's driver's license was expired, they followed him home from work and stopped his car three blocks away.

During a Terry search, the defendant's cell phone was seized. Later, after the pit bulls had been secured, a large amount of marijuana was found in the home, and the defendant was taken to jail. One of the officers began looking through the defendant's phone and found child pornography. Before trial, the defendant moved to suppress the phone's images, and the trial court agreed, finding that the Terry search and later search of the phone were both impermissible. The state appealed.

The Court of Appeals first found that the Terry search resulting in the seizure of the phone was permissible for two reasons. First, the state successfully argued that a cell phone "might contain a weapon," and considering "that 'officer safety is a paramount interest,'" the seizure was justified. Further, the seizure prevented the defendant from notifying others that police were in route.

However, the actual search of the cell phone was held to be unconstitutional because it was outside the warrant's scope. The warrant specified the search of phones "at the premises," meaning it had to be found there. According to the court, "it did not authorize the search of cell phones brought onto the premises by the police."

The state also argued that the phone would have been searched incident to the defendant's arrest after finding the drugs. Because the phone had been placed outside of the defendant's reach, the court held, the search incident to arrest doctrine does not apply.

Lastly, the state argued that the exclusionary rule should not apply because it "does not serve the purpose of preventing future police misconduct." The court disagreed, holding:

Because application of the exclusionary rule deters the police from seizing evidence that is outside the scope of a search warrant, we conclude that the district court did not err by applying the exclusionary rule in this case.
Thus, the suppression of the images from the cell phone was upheld.


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