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A Night To Remember

Colorado Supreme Court: Warrant Allowing General Search of Cellphone Unconstitutional Violation of Particularity Requirement

The Supreme Court of Colorado held that a warrant authorizing a general search of Pamela Kay Coke’s cellphone was overbroad and violated the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement.

Fifteen-year-old T.F. told police Coke had sexually assaulted him. T.F. gave officers his cellphone, which contained messages from “Pam” apologizing (without saying why) and asking T.F. to take a walk with her so they could talk. Two officers went to Coke’s office to speak with her. The officers explained that she was not under arrest and did not have to speak with them.

Coke responded that she had retained a lawyer, and she did not want to speak without her lawyer present. The officers also told Coke they were seizing her cellphone as possible evidence. They took the phone and obtained a warrant to search all texts, videos, pictures, contact lists, phone books, phone records, electronic data packets, and data showing ownership or possession on the cellphone. The ensuing search revealed that Coke’s phone was the source of the text messages on T.F.’s phone.

Before trial, Coke moved to suppress all evidence, including the evidence found on her phone. The trial court granted the motion, concluding, in pertinent part, that the search warrant was overbroad. The People appealed.

The Colorado Supreme Court observed “[t]he Fourth Amendment protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Fourth Amendment states, in part, that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” A search conducted pursuant to a warrant is typically reasonable. People v. Davis, 438 P.3d 266 (Colo. 2019).

However, “general warrants” that permit “a general, exploratory rummaging in a person’s belongings” are prohibited. Andresen v. Maryland, 427 U.S. 463 (1976). To prevent general, exploratory searches, the Fourth Amendment requires a “particular description” of the things to be seized. Id. Because modern cellphones possess immense storage capacities, capable of collecting and storing many distinct types of data in one place, the Colorado Supreme Court had previously recognized that cellphones “hold for many Americans the privacies of life” and are entitled to special protections from searches. Davis. Additionally, a warrant authorizing the search of a cellphone simply for general indicia of ownership violates the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement. People v. Herrera, 357 P.3d 1227 (Colo. 2015).

The warrant in the instant case contained no particularity as to the alleged victim or time period during which the assault allegedly occurred. Instead, the warrant authorized a search of all texts, videos, pictures, contact lists, phone books, and phone records irrespective of when the files were created or stored and regardless to whom they were sent or from whom they were received. Furthermore, the warrant authorized a search for general indicia of ownership. The Court concluded that such broad authorization violated the particularity requirement demanded by the Fourth Amendment and was thus unreasonable. Davis. And “[t]he principal means of effectuating the [particularity] requirement is to suppress all evidence seized pursuant to an overbroad, general warrant.” People v. Roccaforte, 919 P.2d 802 (Colo. 1996).

Related legal case

People v. Coke

 

 

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