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Eleventh Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity to Florida Cop Who Seized iPhone from Accident Bystander

by Christopher Zoukis

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled against a Martin County, Florida, deputy sheriff who seized an iPhone used by a bystander to take pictures and video of an accident scene. The opinion denied the deputy qualified immunity from suit over the illegal seizure of the phone.

On May 20, 2012, James Crocker was driving on Interstate 95 in Martin County when he saw an overturned SUV in the median. He pulled onto the left shoulder and ran to the scene. About 15 other motorists also pulled over to help. When emergency personnel arrived, Crocker stepped about 50 feet from the scene so that the emergency responders could work.

Crocker noticed several other bystanders taking pictures and videos with their cellphones, and he decided to do the same. About 30 seconds after he started filming with his iPhone, Martin County Deputy Sheriff Steven Beatty walked up behind him and snatched the phone without warning. When Crocker demanded his phone back, Beatty declared that it was now state’s evidence and that Crocker should drive to the nearest weigh station and await instructions on how he might get the phone back after the evidence was obtained from it.

Crocker refused to leave without his phone. Beatty refused to give it back. Beatty then arrested Crocker for resisting an officer without violence.

Several years later, Crocker sued Beatty for false arrest and a plethora of other constitutional violations. Beatty moved for summary judgment, arguing that the phone seizure did not violate the Fourth Amendment, and even if it did, he was entitled to qualified immunity. The district court denied Beatty’s motion as to the seizure of the phone. Beatty appealed, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

The Court used a two-step sequence to evaluate Beatty’s qualified immunity claim. First, the Court determined that the conduct violated the Fourth Amendment and that no exceptions applied. Next, it reasoned that the right to be free from this kind of illegal seizure was clearly established at the time of Beatty’s misconduct.

As to whether the seizure violated the Fourth Amendment, Beatty argued that it did not because “he had an objectively reasonable belief that the photographs and videos on Crocker’s iPhone were evidence of a crime and the destruction of this evidence was imminent.” Because evidence on a cellphone is easily destroyed, Beatty argued that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless seizure of Crocker’s phone.

“Not so,” said the Court.

“Taken to its logical conclusion, [Beatty’s] interpretation would permit police officers to seize now-ubiquitous cell phones from any person, in any place, at any time, so long as the phone contains photographs or videos that could serve as evidence of a crime -- simply because the ‘nature’ of the device used to capture that evidence might result in it being lost,” continued the Court. “The Fourth Amendment draws a line well short of this awesome breadth of government power that no court, to our knowledge, has come close to recognizing. The Constitution requires Beatty’s argument to fail.”

The Constitution also flatly rejected Beatty’s argument that the right to be free from warrantless searches of personal property, absent an applicable exception, was not clearly established in 2012, because this particular situation involved an internet-connected smart phone. This argument, said the Court, “asks too much.”

“The novelty of cutting-edge electronic devices cannot grant police officers carte blanche to seize them under the guise of qualified immunity,” wrote the court. “This is not how our analysis operates. Even in ‘novel factual situations,’ we must deny qualified immunity when clearly established case law sends the ‘same message’ to reasonable officers.”

“Our case law has sent a consistent message, predating 2012, about the warrantless seizure of personal property and how exigent circumstances may arise,” continued the Court. “The technology of the iPhone simply does not change our analysis. To hold otherwise would deal a devastating blow to the Fourth Amendment in the face of sweeping technological advancement. These advancements do not create ambiguities in Fourth Amendment law; the principles remain as always.”

Thus, the Court ruled that Beatty’s warrantless seizure of Crocker’s iPhone constituted an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment, the exigent circumstances exception does not apply to these facts, and Beatty is not entitled to qualified immunity.

Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Beatty’s summary judgment motion with respect to Crocker’s § 1983 claim. See: Crocker v. Beatty, 886 F.3d 1132 (11th Cir. 2018). 

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