United States Supreme Court Holds Police “Generally May Not” Search Information of Cell Phone Seized from Arrestee

June 25, 2014 by Marshall A. Mintz · Leave a Comment 

In Riley v. California, decided June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court examined how the ‘search incident to arrest’ doctrine applies to information stored in cellular phone.* The Court first explained that “[d]igital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape.”

Moving on to concerns that evidence might be destroyed, the Court found that “once law enforcement officers have secured a cell phone, there is no longer any risk that the arrestee himself will be able to delete incriminating data from the phone.” While the government had argued that a third party could remotely erase the data or security features on the phone could encrypt the contents, the Court concluded that neither problem was “prevalent” and could be addressed in other ways – such as removing the phone’s battery or storing the phone in a room which blocks radio waves. In any event, “[i]f the police are truly confronted with a ‘now or never’ situation, – for example, circumstances suggesting that a defendant’s phone will be the target of an imminent remote-wipe attempt – they may be able to rely on exigent circumstances to search the phone immediately.”

The Court also discussed how cell phones could store many different types of personal data and the amount of storage space meant that the “sum of an individual’s life” could be reconstructed through all of that information. Moreover, this was different than information stored on paper which a person was not likely to always be carrying around.

I highly recommend reading the entire Opinion but will leave you with its closing paragraph:

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life. The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.

* The Court also stated that labeling a search incident to arrest as an “exception” to the warrant requirement was “something of misnomer,” as these searches “occur with far greater frequency than searches conducted pursuant to a warrant.”

Tattoos Can Be Testimonial Communications Under the Fifth Amendment

February 4, 2011 by Marshall A. Mintz · Leave a Comment 

In United States v. Greer, 09-4362-cr, decided February 4, 2011, the Second Circuit held that evidence about a tattoo on Greer’s arm was “testimonial” because it was introduced at trial to show that Greer had a relationship with a person and not just for purposes of identification.

Greer was arrested after police found ammunition in a car they believed Greer had been driving. The car contained documents with Greer’s name on them but had been rented by someone named Tangela. At the time of his arrest, police noted that Greer had the name Tangela tattooed on his arm. At trial, the government had the arresting officer describe Greer’s appearance at the time of arrest – including what Greer’s tattoos said.

Because the government relied on the content of the tattoo to prove a fact, the evidence was “testimonial.” Further because the evidence linked the defendant to the automobile (and the ammunition that was inside of it), it was also incriminating. Thus, its introduction implicated Greer’s Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.

However, because the tattoo was not compelled by the government, there was no Fifth Amendment violation.

Just How Pervasive is Prosecutorial Misconduct?

September 23, 2010 by Marshall A. Mintz · Leave a Comment 

USA TODAY has an important story about misconduct by federal prosecutors. The article is based on an examination of 201 cases in which district court judges found that prosecutors violated laws or ethics rules – such as hiding evidence, lying to judges and juries, and breaching plea agreements.

The Department of Justice won’t disclose whether any prosecutors have been punished as a result of internal ethics investigations, citing privacy rights. However, the DOJ’s attitude might be illustrated by its handling of two federal prosecutors who failed to disclose impeachment evidence about a key government witness. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the prosecutors “deliberately misled the court and defense counsel.” The DOJ’s response: each prosecutor was suspended for one day.

Prosecutorial Misconduct With No Consequences

March 25, 2010 by Marshall A. Mintz · Leave a Comment 

In United States v. Spivak, 08-6091-cr (2d Cir. March 18, 2010), the defendant was convicted of two counts of distribution and five counts of possession of child pornography.  On appeal, Spivak argued that the government allowed one of its witnesses to testify falsely and made improper comments during summation.

With respect to the witnesses testimony, the Court reiterated that “ prosecutor has a fundamental obligation to ensure that the testimony he elicits is true.”  Citing, Shih Wei Su v. Filion, 335 F.3d 119, 126-27 (2d Cir. 2003).  As such,“allowing the government’s witness to testify falsely in a material way, albeit unknowingly, constituted severe misconduct,” and “eliciting false testimony that Spivack was a pedophile was outrageous.”  Despite that conclusion, the Court found no prejudice – citing the severity of the misconduct, the curative measure taken, and the strength of the government’s case.

The Court was also concerned with the government’s references to Lolita during closing arguments, calling the “problematic” because there was no rational explanation for them “other than to inflame the jury.”  Citing United States v. Modica, 663 F.2d 1173 (2d Cir. 1981).  However, the Court went on to find the comments, “although regrettable” were not “sufficiently egregious to amount to a denial of Spivack’s due process rights.”

Second Circuit allows warrantless search of unhitched trailer under automobile exception to Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement

March 8, 2010 by Marshall A. Mintz · Leave a Comment 

In United States v. Navas, 09-1144-cr, the Second Circuit reversed the district court’s finding that the warrantless search of a trailer – which was unhitched from its cab and parked in a warehouse – was prohibited by the Fourth Amendment.

After being tipped off by a confidential informant and obtaining a warrant to track the location of Navas’s cell phone, agents discovered the phone approaching the Bronx and set up surveillance at the Hunts Point Terminal Market. At that point, Navas was seen unloading a tractor trailer with another defendant. The two then drove the tractor trailer to a private warehouse, where they detached the trailer and drove away, leaving the trailer locked inside. They then proceeded to a McDonald’s where they met with several other individuals and were all arrested.

Agents transported everyone back to the warehouse, and, during a pat-down of one of the defendants, found a garage door opener. While that individual claimed the opener was for his home, one of the agents testified that it opened the door to the warehouse when the agent “inadvertently” touched it.

When agents entered the warehouse, they “examined the top of the trailer and observed physical indicia of a secret compartment. The agents then “ripped off the sheet metal roof” of the trailer, discovered 230 kilograms of cocaine, and promptly seized the contraband.

The district court held that the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement,“generally relates to some type of vehicle that is capable of moving on its own,” and “[a] stationary trailer, detached from a tractor cab with its legs dropped, and stored inside a warehouse, is not a vehicle that is readily mobile or in use for transportation.” As such, the district court granted defendants’ suppression motion.

The Second Circuit began its analysis by recognizing that the automobile exception permits law enforcement to conduct a warrantless search of a readily mobile vehicle where there is probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband. See, Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940 (1996). That exception is based on two rationales: the inherent mobility of a vehicle and the diminished expectation of privacy in their contents. See, e.g., California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 391 (1985); see also United States v. Howard, 489 F.3d 484, 492 (2d Cir. 2007).

The Second Circuit concluded that the trailer was “readily mobile” because “[w]hether a vehicle is ‘readily mobile’ within the meaning of the automobile exception has more to do with the inherent mobility of the vehicle than with the potential for the vehicle to be moved from the jurisdiction, thereby precluding a search.” Citing Howard, 489 F.3d at 493. The Court also found the reduced-privacy rationale to apply “forcefully,” in part because of the myriad state and federal regulations on such trailers.

Article on Honest Services Fraud

November 24, 2009 by Marshall A. Mintz · Leave a Comment 

The New York Federal Criminal Practice blog featured an article I wrote on a case out of the Eastern District of New York involving a prosecution for honest services fraud. The case presented two interesting issues: (1) what distinguishes bribery/kickback frauds from frauds involving self-dealing; and, (2) when is a statement made by an attorney admissible against his client at trial.

That article can be found here.