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Pennsylvania Supreme Court: No Probable Cause to Search Cellphones Merely Possessed in Proximity to Drugs and Guns

This case of first impression came before the Court after Lavelle Johnson and several others were arrested when police conducted a search of a house where Johnson was a guest and found drugs and stolen firearms. In a search incident to arrest, police found Johnson had two cellphones and filed an affidavit for a warrant to search those phones for evidence linking him to the drugs and guns.

The affidavit mostly touted the experience of the searching officers that drugs and cellphones often go hand-in-hand and that drugs and guns were found in the house where Johnson was arrested. The affidavit asked the judge to sign a warrant for “all information stored in the body of these cellular phones” found in Johnson’s possession. The judge signed the warrant, and Johnson was charged with drug and firearm offenses.

Johnson filed a motion to suppress in the trial court, calling the search warrant “ridiculously overbroad.” He argued that the affidavit in support of the warrant lacked probable cause because merely “being present in a house where drugs are found does not give rise to probable cause for the government to search and examine the cell phones of those present.” He said it would set a “very dangerous precedent” for a court to say that anyone found near drugs can have their cellphones searched. “To endorse that rule would be to strip away one of our constitutional rights when we go to a concert,” he pointed out.

Johnson’s motion to suppress was denied, and he was convicted of possession of heroin but acquitted of the firearm charges. He was sentenced to one to two years in prison. The Superior Court affirmed, rejecting his challenge to the warrant by reasoning that “close proximity to firearms and evidence of the distribution of heroin” was enough to establish probable cause.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review and held that because the warrant lacked even probable cause the evidence from Johnson’s cellphones was inadmissible.

The Court began by noting that Article I, Section 8 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution requires more specificity than that of the U.S. Constitution’s similar Fourth Amendment provisions regarding warrants. Pennsylvania requires that not only must the warrant describe the place to be searched and items to be seized with specificity but also requires that the warrant “be supported by probable cause to believe that the items sought will provide evidence of a crime,” the Court explained.

To show probable cause, there must be a “specific nexus between the items to be searched and seized and the suspected crime committed,” the Court explained. The Court gave as an example from its prior cases that “probable cause to believe a man has committed a crime on the street does not necessarily give rise to probable cause to search his home.” There has to be a “link” in the affidavit to show probable cause, the Court stated.

Despite the Commonwealth’s presentation of evidence in court that showed Johnson might have been connected to the drugs and guns in the house, the Court reiterated that probable cause can only be assessed by the facts in the affidavit. No other evidence can be considered. The Court has held as much, and the rules expressly say so. Commonwealth v. Coleman, 830 A.2d 554 (Pa. 2003); Pa.R.Crim.P. 203(B).

The affidavit here lacked the “extensive information” typically associated with drug cases and warrants for cellphones searches. There was no evidence of a controlled buy involving Johnson or that cellphones were used to conduct illegal drug operations, the Court said.

“The bare fact that appellant was present in a place where illegal contraband happened to be found,” the Court said, “that fact, in and of itself, cannot supply probable cause for a search of appellant’s cell phone.”

While Johnson mainly argued about the overbreadth of the warrant, the Court said that without probable cause the warrant was essentially overbroad already. “It is impossible to consider an overbreadth challenge to a search warrant without taking probable cause into account,” the Court said. “Where a search warrant issues in the total absence of probable cause, the warrant is, quite literally in some sense, entirely ‘overbroad.’”

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. Johnson



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