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Taking a cell phone for merely recording an incident is a Fourth Amendment violation

The issue here is whether a police officer seizing a cell phone from someone recording an incident violates the Fourth Amendment. In this civil rights appeal, the Martin County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Beatty claiming he was entitled to qualified immunity for seizing the plaintiff’s iPhone after from Crocker after he took photos and videos of a car accident crash scene from where he stood on the interstate grass median. The district court denied his motion for summary judgment and he took this appeal.

Crocker stopped while driving on Interstate 95 in Martin County, Florida when he observed an overturned SUV. Soon after he stopped, emergency personnel arrived but he remained in the interstate median about fifty feet from the SUV.  Crocker then took out his cell phone and proceeded to take photos and videos of the scene that included images of empty beer bottles, the overturned vehicle, and firemen. About thirty seconds after Crocker started using his camera, Beatty walked over to him, reached out from behind him without warning or explanation and took the iPhone out of his hand. When asked by Beatty why he was on the scene Crocker explained that he had stopped to assister before first responders had arrived. Beatty told the plaintiff to leave and the plaintiff agreed to but wanted his cell phone back. Beatty replied that the photos and video on the phone were evidence of the state and the plaintiff would need to drive to the nearest weigh station to wait for instruction about the return of his phone after the evidence could be obtained from it.

When Beatty refused to hand over the phone, the plaintiff refused to leave. Beatty then arrested Crocker for resisting an officer without violence.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Beatty and the Martin County Sheriff for false arrest and other violations of his constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983, including the phone seizure. Beatty filed his summary judgment motion claiming that as to the phone seizure no Fourth Amendment violation occurred and that he was entitled to qualified immunity in any event.

Generally the seizure of property is per s unreasonable and a violation of the Fourth Amendment when the seizure is not pursuant to a warrant. One exception to a warrantless seizure of property exists when certain exigencies exist including the imminent destruction of property. The deputy argued that he had an objectively reasonable belief that the photographs and videos on the plaintiff’s iPhone were evidence of a crime and that the destruction of the evidence was imminent.

The court of appeals rejected this argument finding no facts to support the conclusion that a reasonable experienced agent would have thought the destruction of the evidence was imminent. The court noted that the plaintiff was only a bystander to the car accident and was not a person who could be implicated in a crime not could someone close to him be implicated. Evidence is more likely to be destroyed when it is in the possession of a person who may be convicted by it. The court agreed with the argument advanced by the civil rights lawyer that the plaintiff was merely a curious passerby and showed no indication he would have deleted the photographs he took himself.

In the second phase of the court’s analysis of whether the deputy violated the Fourth Amendment by seizing the iPhone, the plaintiff had to show the constitutional right against the seizure was clearly established at the time. The court determined that the deputy was not entitled to qualified immunity because the seizure of the phone violated a clearly established right. The court found that the novelty of cutting edge electronic devises like a cell phone does not give the police officers cart blanche authority to seize them absent a warrant or exigent circumstances.   The technology of the iPhone did not change the court’s Fourth Amendment analysis.

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