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Seizures: Person vs. Object

It is normal to hear of a Fourth Amendment violation when law enforcement unreasonably extends a traffic stop. However, it isn't often that you hear of a seizure of items that has been unreasonably extended.

In U.S. v. Pratt, a defendant was charged with multiple counts of sex trafficking and child pornography. The defendant ran a prostitution ring in which the victim was an underage member. The victim had sent the defendant several nude photos. When FBI agents confronted the defendant about the alleged photos on his phone, he admitted that they were there, but he did not give consent for them to search or what his password to his phone was. The FBI seized his phone as evidence. However, they did not obtain a search warrant for over 31 days.

The Fourth Circuit had to determine if this seizure was unreasonable and a violation of the Fourth Amendment:

A seizure that is “lawful at its inception can nevertheless violate the Fourth Amendment because its manner of execution unreasonably infringes possessory interests.” To determine if an extended seizure violates the Fourth Amendment, we balance the government’s interest in the seizure against the individual’s possessory interest in the object seized.
United States v. Pratt, No. 17-4489, 2019 WL 489053, at *3 (4th Cir. Feb. 8, 2019) (citations omitted)

The court goes through several different examples of when the government has a compelling interest to extend the seizure and examples of when they do not. While they do cite to extended traffic stops being unreasonable when they do not have 'reasonable suspicion,' they do not set that as the standard. And that makes more sense when we are talking about the seizure of items as opposed to the seizure of an individual.

Another interesting point the court brings up is the difference between items that contain evidence in them (e.g., cell phones), and items that have individual evidentiary value (e.g., murder weapon):

We decline to affirm on the government’s alternative argument that it could retain the phone indefinitely because it had independent evidentiary value, like a murder weapon. Only the phone’s files had evidentiary value. The agents could have removed or copied incriminating files and returned the phone. Pratt’s phone is thus distinct from the suitcase in United States v. Carter. In Carter, the police arrested a man at an airport for stealing another traveler’s bag. Id. We affirmed that the police could retain the man’s own suitcase as evidence he didn’t take the other bag by mistake. Id. But here, the phone itself is evidence of nothing.
Id., at *4 (citation omitted)

The Rule: seizure of person vs. seizure of object

It appears that there are two different standards for seizures. The standard for law enforcement to extend a traffic stop/seizure of a person is 'reasonable suspicion.' The standard for extending the seizure of objects requires the court to "balance the government’s interest in the seizure against the individual’s possessory interest in the object seized." Id, at *3

The Fourth Circuit held that the seizure of the phone for 31 days was an unreasonable extension of time:

Given Pratt’s undiminished interest, a 31-day delay violates the Fourth Amendment where the government neither proceeds diligently nor presents an overriding reason for the delay.
Id., at *4

The courts have shown that as cell phones and technology grow, they will work to keep privacy and Fourth Amendment issues up to date along side them.


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