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Fourth Circuit: Unreasonable Post-Seizure Delay in Obtaining Warrant Requires Suppression of Evidence

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a 31-day delay in obtaining a search warrant after seizing a defendant’s cellphone, without reasonable justification, violates the Fourth Amendment and requires suppression of the evidence obtained from the phone.

Samuel Pratt was suspected by the FBI of running a prostitution ring that included juveniles. Pratt had advertised on Backpage.com the sexual services of 17-year-old “RM” at a hotel in Columbia, South Carolina. An agent scheduled a “date” with RM. Upon arrival at the hotel, he identified himself as an agent. RM agreed to speak with several agents. She said Pratt was her boyfriend, she was 17, Pratt brought her from North Carolina to work as a prostitute, and she had sent nude pictures of herself to Pratt’s phone. 

Agent Stansbury left the hotel room and spoke with Pratt in the parking lot. Stansbury seized the iPhone Pratt was holding, telling him the FBI would get a search warrant. Pratt refused to consent to the seizure or disclose the phone’s passcode. The FBI waited 31 days before obtaining a warrant. The agents then found nude images of RM on the phone.

Pratt was ultimately tried on eight counts, including one count of producing child pornography and one count of possessing child pornography. Pratt moved to suppress the evidence seized from his phone. At the suppression hearing, he argued that both the seizure and the delay between the seizure and obtaining a warrant were unconstitutional. The Government argued the delay stemmed from determining whether the warrant was to be sought in North or South Carolina. The district court denied the motion, finding the seizure justified and the delay reasonable. At trial, evidence from the phone was admitted, including 28 images alleged to be child pornography. Pratt was convicted of all counts, receiving life sentences on four counts and concurrent time on the remaining four. Pratt appealed the denial of his suppression motion, arguing the district court should have suppressed the evidence because of the unreasonable delay in getting the search warrant.

To decide the issue, the Court had to determine if the district court erred, and if so, was the error harmless? United States v. Abu Ali, 528 F.3d 210 (4th Cir. 2008). The Fourth Circuit explained, “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 (1984).

To determine if an extended seizure violates the Fourth Amendment, courts must balance the Government’s interest in the seizure against the individual’s possessory interest in the seized object. United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696 (1983). A strong government interest can justify an extended seizure. Illinois v. McArthur, 531 U.S. 326 (2001). But when an individual’s interest outweighs the Government’s, an extended seizure may be unreasonable. Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015). If a defendant consents to the seizure or voluntarily shares the contents of the seized object, he diminishes his possessory interest. United States v. Christie, 717 F.3d 1156 (10th Cir. 2013). Also, overwhelmed police resources or other overriding circumstances can justify an extended delay in obtaining a warrant. United States v. Mitchell, 565 F.3d 1347 (11th Cir. 2009). But the Government must exercise diligence in procuring a warrant. United States v. Burgard, 675 F.3d 1029 (7th Cir. 2012).

The Court observed that Pratt did not diminish his possessory interest in the phone because he refused to consent to the seizure, and he did not voluntarily share the phone’s contents. And the Government’s explanation was insufficient to justify the delay. It does not take 31 days to decide in which jurisdiction to obtain a warrant when a warrant from either jurisdiction would be legally sound, the Court stated. The FBI’s resources were not overwhelmed; they simply failed to exercise diligence. Since the 31-day delay was unreasonable and the search violated the Fourth Amendment, Pratt’s suppression motion should have been granted, the Court ruled.
Having concluded the district court erred in denying the suppression motion, the Court conducted harmless error analysis. In a harmless error analysis, the essential question is whether “it [is] clear beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury would have found the defendant guilty absent the error.” United States v. Garcia-Lagunas, 835 F.3d 479 (4th Cir. 2016).

To convict Pratt of producing and possessing child pornography, the Government must prove the images depicted a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct. 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a) and 2252A(a)(5)(B). The Court found the error was not harmless because the images from the phone were the only evidence of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct. Without the images, no rational jury would have convicted Pratt of the two counts related to child pornography.

Accordingly, the Court vacated Pratt’s convictions on those two counts. Since trial courts impose aggregate sentences based on all of the convictions, the Court vacated Pratt’s entire sentence to allow the district court to sentence him anew. See: United States v. Pratt, 915 F.3d 266 (4th Cir. 2019). 

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