D.C. Circuit Limits Seizure of Electronic Storage Devices

By George Khoury, Esq. on August 22, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

On appeal, the D.C. Circuit Court vacated the conviction of Ezra Griffith, who was found guilty of possessing a firearm as a felon. In doing so, the court, in U.S.A. v. Ezra Griffith, clarified what information is necessary in an affidavit to support a search for a cell phone or other electronic storage devices.

The key issue on appeal was whether the Griffith's motion to suppress the evidence gathered during a search of his home was properly denied. While the lower court found that the search warrant was not proper, it nevertheless allowed the evidence discovered during the search to be used at trial, as it found the good-faith exception applied. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals saw it differently and has raised the bar for what's acceptable in a search warrant affidavit in support of seizing a cell phone.

Details of the Case

Ezra Griffith was suspected of criminal activity by law enforcement. In obtaining a search warrant to search his home, officers requested permission to seize all electronic devices, including cell phones, on the premises. When the officers arrived to execute the warrant, Griffith allegedly dropped a firearm out of the window. In addition to finding the firearm, officers also seized all the cell phones on the property.

Griffith attempted to suppress the evidence of the gun as fruit of the poisonous tree. The basis of the motion was that the affidavit in support of the search warrant was overbroad, and did not provide a foundation or any support to link Griffith's alleged criminal activity with the use of a cell phone or electronic device. The lower court found that regardless, the officers were acting in good faith executing the warrant, and thus the gun fell under the good faith exception.

The appellate court reasoned that the good faith exception could not apply when the basis for the warrant completely lacks foundation. The court noted that the affidavit lacked any declaration that Griffith was seen using a cell phone, or that Griffith even owned a cell phone. And while the court also noted that SCOTUS believes cell phones are nearly a part of human anatomy, law enforcement cannot simply presume a person owns a cell phone without any evidence or foundation to support that presumption.

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