A U.S. appeals court said on Friday the widespread prevalence of mobile devices means that it is insufficient as a basis for obtaining a warrant to search someone's home for a cellphone.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia's Circuit threw out a D.C. man's criminal conviction for unlawful possession of a fireman by a felon, saying in a 2-1 ruling that the police found the weapon only because they drafted an "overly broad" search warrant.
The warrant did not say police believed they would find a gun. Instead, it authorized officers to search for any cellphones and other electronic devices in the man's residence.
The warrant was unconstitutional because police had no particular reason to think the man owned a cellphone or that it would contain incriminating messages, the court said.
"The assumption that most people own a cell phone would not automatically justify an open-ended warrant to search a home anytime officers seek a person’s phone," Judge Sri Srinivasan said in a decision joined by Judge Nina Pillard.
The man at the center of the case, Ezra Griffith, was suspected by Washington police of acting as the getaway driver in a 2011 murder.
In 2013 a judge approved a warrant that allowed police to enter Griffith's residence and seize cellphones. When police arrived at Griffith's residence they seized a gun that had been thrown from a window.
Griffith had a prior criminal conviction so prosecutors charged him with unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. A jury convicted him in 2013.
Griffith's lawyers argued the gun should have been suppressed, saying the warrant under which it was found was defective because of its focus on cellphones.
The D.C. Circuit said in Friday's ruling that police did not have probable cause to think Griffith owned a cellphone, much less that the phone would turn up evidence relating to his alleged role in the murder.
"Finding the existence of probable cause in this case, therefore, would verge on authorizing a search of a person’s home almost anytime there is probable cause to suspect her of a crime," Srinivasan said in the court's majority decision. "We cannot accept that proposition."
Judge Janice Rogers Brown dissented, saying the gun should have been allowed into evidence because police acted in good faith.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Frances Kerry)