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Missouri Supreme Court: Evidence Found in Cell Phone Seized at Sheriff’s Office Instead of Defendant’s Home, Identified as Location to Be Searched in Warrant, Must Be Suppressed

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Supreme Court of Missouri held that evidence obtained from a cell phone seized from defendant while he was visiting the sheriff’s office was properly suppressed where the search warrant allowing for seizure of the phone identified only the defendant’s home as the location to be searched for the phone.

On March 17, 2019, Detective Thomas Fenton of the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department went to the home of James Christopher Bales to investigate a case of child abuse following the admission of Bales’ 22-month-old son to the hospital and a subsequent diagnosis of “shaken baby syndrome.” In an attempt to show that the child caused his own injuries, Bales showed Fenton a video on his cell phone showing the child “throwing a fit” and hitting his head on the wooden floor.

Shortly afterward, Fenton applied for a search warrant to seize Bales’ phone on the theory that perpetrators of child abuse often record past incidents of abuse, send messages regarding abuse incidents to family and friends, and conduct internet searches about “cases, symptoms, and signs of abuse.” The magistrate issued a search warrant on March 28 authorizing Fenton to seize the phone “kept in the following described places in the County aforesaid, to wit: A cell phone located at 13251 Highway O Dixon, in Pulaski County Missouri. This cell phone is described as Black Samsung with black case.” The warrant allowed for searches for a wide variety of electronic data on the phone to be seized at that address.

Bales and his attorney subsequently visited the sheriff’s office to show a video on his phone to Fenton, who announced that he had a warrant for the phone, seized it, and then had it analyzed. Fenton also “filed a return of the search warrant that incorrectly stated he had gone to the premises described in the warrant and seized the cell phone after discovering it there.”

Forensic analysis of the phone uncovered evidence of another crime during. Police obtained a second warrant to seize data relating to that crime from the phone.

In the ensuing criminal case, Bales filed to suppress evidence obtained from the phone, arguing that the initial warrant lacked particularity and that the phone was seized outside of the address listed in the warrant, i.e., the sheriff’s office.

The circuit court ordered the evidence suppressed, and the State filed an appeal. After an opinion by the court of appeals, the Missouri Supreme Court granted transfer.

On direct appeal of a granted suppression motion, the State bears the burden of proving the search and seizure were constitutionally proper. § 542 .296.6; State v. Pike, 162 S.W.3d 464 (Mo. 2005).

Bales argued that the initial warrant was fatally defective because it failed to describe the “thing to be seized” with sufficient particularity and that Fenton’s seizure of the phone was beyond the scope of the warrant because he did so at the sheriff’s office rather than the location described in the warrant. Further, Bales argued that the warrant was so facially deficient police couldn’t reasonable rely on it, so the Good Faith Exception doesn’t apply.

As an initial matter, the Court stated that the beyond the scope of the warrant and Good Faith Exception issues are dispositive, so it need not address the sufficient particularity issue.

To be valid, the Court observed that a warrant must “particularly describe” both “the place to be searched” and “the person or things to be seized.” United States v. Grubbs, 547 U.S. 90 (2006) (quoting U.S. Const. amend. IV). Mo. Rev. Stat. Section 542.276.6(6) states a search warrant must “[c]ommand that the described person, place, or thing be searched and that any of the described property, article, material, substance, or person found thereon or therein be seized.”

When analyzing a search warrant to determine its scope, the text is read in a commonsense, rather than hypertechnical, manner. State v. Neher, 213 S.W.3d 44 (Mo. 2007).

The Court explained that when executing a warrant, police are required abide by the terms contained in the warrant and aren’t permitted to exceed its scope by searching a location different from that identified in the warrant. State v. Douglass, 544 S.W.3d 182 (Mo. 2018). “The authority to search granted by a warrant is limited to the specific places described in it and does not extend to additional or different places.” United States v. Johnson, 640 F.3d 843 (8th Cir. 2011).

The Court observed that the State concedes Fenton seized the phone at the sheriff’s office instead of the location identified in the warrant, i.e., 13251 Highway O, Dixon, in Pulaski County, Missouri. In the turn, the Court acknowledged that it’s “understandable that Detective Fenton believed he could validly seize the cell phone” while Bales was holding it in plain view right in front of him. However, the issue is whether Fenton’s seizure of the phone was valid under the search warrant.

Applying well-settled principles of search and seizure law to the facts of the case, the Court had no difficulty determining that the seizure of the phone from Bale at the sheriff’s office exceeded the scope of the warrant, which expressly authorized the search for and seizure of the phone at 13251 Highway O. The Court explained that executing the search warrant at any other location was beyond scope authorized by the warrant. Thus, the warrant was not a valid legal basis for the seizure of the phone, and as a result, the evidence must be suppressed unless a recognized exception to the warrant requirement applies, the Court ruled.

The Court turned to the issue of the Good Faith Exception to the Exclusionary Rule. It noted that the purpose of the Exclusionary Rule is to deter abusive and unlawful conduct by the police. United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984). The Good Faith Exception applies in situations were there’s an invalid warrant but excluding the evidence wouldn’t achieve the deterrent effect. Id. The exception applies when it was objectively reasonable for the police to rely on the defective warrant. State v. Sweeney, 701 S.W.2d 420 (Mo. 1985). However, the Court stated that it’s not objectively reasonable for police to search beyond the scope of the warrant. State v. Lucas, 452 S.W.3d 641 (Mo. App. 2014) (citing Leon). The Court determined that it wasn’t objectively reasonable for Fenton to rely on the initial search warrant to seize Bale’s phone while at the sheriff’s office. Thus, the Court ruled that the Good Faith Exception doesn’t apply.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the suppression of the evidence. See: State v. Bales, 630 S.W.3d 754 (Mo. 2021). 

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