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Fifth Circuit: Evidence of Simple Drug Possession Insufficient to Search Cellphone Photos for Evidence of Drug Trafficking

Bryan Matthew Morton was stopped for speeding near Palo Pinto, Texas. Officers smelled marijuana, and Morton consented to a search of the vehicle. Officers recovered 16 ecstasy pills, a small bag of marijuana, and a pipe. Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Burt Blue applied for warrants to search Morton’s three cellphones. The warrants were granted to search for evidence such as “telephone numbers, address books[,] call logs, contacts, ... text messages[,] ... photographs, digital images, or multimedia files in furtherance of narcotics trafficking or possession.”

A search of the cellphones recovered 19,270 images of child sexual exploitation but no further evidence of drug crimes. Morton moved to suppress the evidence resulting from the search of his cellphones, but his motion was denied. He entered a plea deal under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 11(a)(2), allowing him to plead to receipt of child pornography on the condition that he be allowed to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. He was subsequently sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment.

The Court noted that it employs a two-step analysis when reviewing the denial of a suppression motion for evidence gathered pursuant to a search warrant. United States v. Allen, 625 F.3d 830 (5th Cir. 2010). The first step is to determine whether the good-faith exception applies, and if so, that ends the inquiry. Id. Otherwise, the second step examines whether there was a substantial basis for determining that probable caused existed in issuing the warrant. Id.

Generally, when officers’ reliance on a defective warrant is “objectively reasonable,” the evidence “will not be excluded” in accordance with the good-faith exception. United States v. Sibley, 448 Fed 754 (5th Cir. 2006). The Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984), articulated four exceptions to this rule, the relevant one of which is where the warrant “so lack[ed] indicia of probable cause” that officers’ reliance on it was “entirely unreasonable.”

Affidavits must raise a “fair probability” or a “substantial chance” that evidence will be found in the place to be searched. Safford United School Dist. No. 1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364 (2009). Officers may rely on their experience, training, and all the facts available to them when attesting probable cause exists. Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690 (1996). However, probable cause is required to search each category of content on a suspect’s cellphone. Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373 (2014).

According to Trooper Blue’s experience, evidence supporting criminal possession of drugs can be found in a phone’s “contacts, call records, and text messages.” Further, according to Blue’s affidavits, “criminals often take photographs of co-conspirators as well as illicit drugs and currency derived from the sale of illicit drugs.”

The Court noted that “indications of drug trafficking were lacking [when officers detained Morton]: no significant amount of drug; paraphernalia for personal use, not sale; and no large amounts of cash. Or precisely: there was no evidence supporting drug trafficking.” Thus, while officers could reasonably search Morton’s contacts, call logs, and text for evidence relating to drug possession, they had no probable cause to support a search of the cellphones’ photos for narcotics trafficking, according to the Court.

For this reason, the warrants “so lack[ed] indicia of probable cause” as to make the search of Morton’s photos unreasonable, the Court determined.

As for the second part of the Allen test, the warrant issued by the magistrate suffered from the same infirmity listed above: The photos on the cellphones “could not be searched because the information in the officers’ affidavits, namely that Morton possessed items which failed to establish any link to drug trafficking,” supporting a search of the cellphones only related to drug trafficking, not simple possession of drugs.” Thus, the Court ruled that the evidence at issue is inadmissible.

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Related legal case

United States v. Morton



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