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Cellphone search warrant didn’t violate Fourth Amendment

December 7, 2018

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that a warrant authorizing police to search a man’s phone after a drug-deal gone wrong was not in violation of the Fourth Amendment, finding the warrant to be as specific as circumstances allowed.

After a customer sprayed him with pepper spray during a drug deal, Edward Bishop shot the customer in the arm. A jury convicted Bishop of discharging a firearm during a drug transaction and Bishop was ultimately sentenced to 10 years in prison.

On appeal, Bishop argued that the warrant authorizing a search of his cellphone that revealed incriminating evidence violated the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that every warrant “particularly describ[e] the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Specifically, he asserted that the language in his warrant was too general because it authorized police to look through every application and file on the phone, leaving them the ability to judge and determine which files met the description.

The 7th Circuit Court found that although he correctly asserted the facts of the warrant, he was wrong in thinking its language made the warrant too general.

“Criminals don’t advertise where they keep evidence. A warrant authorizing a search of a house for drugs permits the police to search everywhere in the house, because ‘everywhere’ is where the contraband may be hidden,” Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote.

Citing Andresen v. Maryland, 427 U.S. 463 (1976), the 7th Circuit noted that the warrant permitted the search of every document on the cellphone.

“In Andresen the police did not know how the target organized his files, so the best they could do was the broad language the warrant used,” Easterbrook continued. “Likewise here: the police did not know where on his phone Bishop kept his drug ledgers and gun videos — and, if he had told them, they would have been fools to believe him, for criminals often try to throw investigators off the trail. This warrant was as specific as circumstances allowed. The Constitution does not require more.”

The case is USA v. Edward Bishop, 18-2019.

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