When can the court grant Defendants’ motions to suppress cell phone data?

How Are Two Motions to Suppress Cell Phone Data Different? One is Granted and One is Denied.

Author: Preeya Sonia
Case Citation: U.S. v. Williams, 161 F. Supp. 3d 846 (N.D. Cal. 2016).
Employee/Personnel/Employer Implicated: U.S. Attorney’s Office, San Francisco, CA
eLesson Learned: The Government’s affidavit in support of a warrant for Defendant 1’s cell phone records should have established probable cause. Additionally, although the court denied Defendant 2’s motion to suppress all cell phone evidence obtained, the Government should not have obtained his cell phone data through an unjustified exigent request.
Tweet This: Motion to Suppress granted due to lack of probable cause; 2nd motion denied despite unlawful exigent request

An affidavit written by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) in support of a warrant for the seizure of cell phone records of two defendants stated the following:

SFPD officers responded to reports of a shooting and found Calvin Sneed dead in his car with a gunshot wound in his head. Next to his car was his minor girlfriend. She told the police that she had been living in Los Angeles for the past eight months with her brother, Defendant 1. She stated that Sneed was a pimp and that she had been advertising herself as a prostitute in L.A. She and Sneed had driven to San Francisco the day before to speak with her parents. After an argument with her mother that day, she asked Sneed to pick her up. He arrived shortly afterward and when she was about to get in his car, an SUV pulled up and fired shots at Sneed. After allowing police to search her phone, the SFPD found the numbers of her brother, Defendant 1, and her father, Defendant 2.

Both defendants later filed motions to suppress the cell phone data obtained pursuant to the warrant, which was based on the affidavit information stated above.

The court granted Defendant 1’s motion to suppress because it found that the warrant failed to establish probable cause. The affidavit hardly mentioned Defendant 1 and included only passing, innocuous references to him. Thus, it was entirely unreasonable to believe that the affidavit established probable cause to search Defendant 1’s cell phone data. Additionally, the court determined that the inevitable discovery doctrine did not apply because the inevitability of discovery was not demonstrated in a compelling way.

However, the court did not grant Defendant 2’s motion to suppress, even though the SFPD’s exigent request was unjustified and the warrant improperly relied on the information gleaned from the exigent request. The court concluded that the lawfully obtained information in the affidavit was enough to provide a substantial basis for concluding that the affidavit established probable cause. Additionally, when considering the seriousness of the crime and the lawfully obtained information, the court stated that the SFPD would have sought the warrant even if it hadn’t made the unjustified exigent request.

Preeya Sonia is a third-year law student at Seton Hall University School of Law and resides in Newark, NJ.

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