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Court: It's Cool If The (Federal) Government Searches A Phone The (Local) Government Seized Illegally

Published: July 10, 2019
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Source: Tech Dirt

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has decided it's OK if a government agency searches a phone that should never have been seized in the first place… so long as it's not the same government agency that illegally seized it. The illegality of the original seizure -- which should have provoked some discussions of poisonous trees and their harmful fruit -- is pretty much discarded in favor of the good faith exception.

The backstory is this: Charles Fulton Jr. was targeted by the Galveston (TX) Police Department -- working in tandem with the FBI -- for sex trafficking and prostitution of teens. He was ultimately found guilty on four sex trafficking charges, prompting this appeal of the district court's refusal to toss out the evidence pulled from his seized phone.

Here's how the seizure and very eventual search went down, taken from the court's decision [PDF]. (Some emphasis added for reasons that will become apparent momentarily.)

In February 2015, Galveston police obtained a search warrant on the Avenue L house where the prostitution was based. The warrant, though, was due to a separate investigation into Fulton’s narcotics activities. Fulton’s cellphone was seized. Nine days later, police obtained a second warrant to examine its contents but were unable to bypass the phone’s security features. Around this same time, the FBI agent assisting with the Fulton sex-trafficking investigation learned that the Galveston police had the phone. The agent acquired it to determine if the FBI could access the phone’s data. Three weeks later, that agent obtained a federal warrant to search the phone. Still, it took a year before the data on the phone was accessed. The FBI discovered evidence that helped piece together Fulton’s involvement with the minor victims.

Recovered from the phone were text messages and photographs linking Fulton to the five minor victims he was trafficking. Fulton challenged the original seizure of the phone by the Galveston PD, hoping that a finding in his favor would eliminate the evidence pulled from the phone by the FBI.

The appeals court agrees with Fulton that the phone's seizure was illegal. The warrant makes no mention of seizing phones or other electronics. And yet, that's exactly what was seized. The government tried to claim Fulton's phone was pretty much the equivalent of something else actually mentioned in the warrant.

This narcotics warrant did not mention cellphones. The alleged equivalent was a reference to “ledgers,” which is a “book . . . ordinarily employed for recording . . . transactions.” Ledger, OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY (2d ed. 1989). The government argues that is enough, because this court has held that a cellphone that is “used as a mode of both spoken and written communication and containing text messages and call logs, served as the equivalent of records and documentation of sales or other drug activity.”

The government quoted precedent allowing the word "ledger" to stand in for "computers, disks, monitors" and other hardware that might contain the equivalent of a ledger. The court says all that would be fine if the government made any mention of ledger equivalents in its warrant. But it didn't.

We do not see the same factors involved in the present case. There was nothing in the Galveston warrant suggesting that anything similar to computers or even electronics was to be seized. Moreover, the officer in this case was a veteran of the Galveston Police Department’s narcotics unit, and he indicated at the suppression hearing that he knew cellphones are used in the drug trade. Though a ledger can serve one of the myriad purposes of a cellphone, we do not extend the concept of “functional equivalency” to items so different, particularly one as specific, distinguishable, and anticipatable as a cellphone.

The government says the good faith exception should apply to the FBI's search of the illegally-seized phone. This argument wasn't even addressed by the lower court, which found other grounds to grant the government's use of this evidence.

The appeals court does take a swing at this argument, though, but not to the benefit of Fulton and others similarly-situated in the circuit. Good faith it is.

We conclude that viewed objectively, an FBI agent who obtained a search warrant in these circumstances would not have had reason to believe the seizure and continued possession of the cellphone by the Galveston police were unlawful.

The (federal) government gets this win even though the (local) government has just been handed a loss. Despite the fact the two agencies worked "in tandem" on this investigation, the court still decides the reasonably ignorant FBI agent had no way of knowing the phone handed to them by their investigation partner had been seized illegally.

And I suppose that's possibly true. The FBI assists in many investigations instigated by local agencies once there's a possibility that federal charges may be the end result. But a decision like this just encourages everyone in a joint investigation to be as blissfully ignorant as possible to obtain the best possible chance at securing a good faith ruling. In this case, an agent was working directly with the Texas agency and found out the Galveston PD had seized a phone, but didn't take a look at the PD's paper trail before crafting an affidavit of their own. That's the exact opposite of "good faith." That's bad faith -- the least amount of knowledge and effort combining to allow for law enforcement rule-bending and access to pre-made judicial excuses molded from years of slack-cutting precedent.


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