MN: Police had exigency to seize cell phone during murder investigation

Police were interviewing defendant in a murder case. Once her story started making no sense anymore, an officer seized her phone and then applied for a warrant to search it. The officer had exigent circumstances to seize the phone to prevent destruction of the contents. State v. Horst, 2016 Minn. LEXIS 278 (May 18, 2016):

For three reasons, we conclude that Horst’s argument is unconvincing. First, the investigator did not have reason to believe that Horst’s cell phone contained evidence of a crime until after he discovered discrepancies in Horst’s story and the interview had progressed to a discussion of Horst’s texts and calls. The investigators became suspicious only after comparing the accounts given by Horst and A.P. As the investigator who interviewed Horst stated at trial, once the investigators compared the stories, it became apparent that “something was being omitted” and that Horst was not “being completely forthcoming.”

Second, the investigator did not know if, or when, Horst would terminate the interview. As we have already concluded, the officers did not place Horst into custody before, during, or immediately after the interview, so it was within Horst’s discretion to end the interview and leave the police station. If she had done so, she could have promptly destroyed the evidence contained on the cellphone.

Third, despite technological innovations that allow officers to obtain warrants more quickly, McNeely recognizes that “[w]arrants inevitably take some time for police officers or prosecutors to complete and for … judges to review.” ___ U.S. at ___, 133 S. Ct. at 1562. Even though Minnesota permits oral testimony in support of a warrant, Minn. R. Crim. P. 36.03 requires the preparation of a “duplicate original warrant.” To secure a warrant while Horst was in the interview room, Rule 36 would have required the investigator to interrupt the interview, draft [*20] a warrant application, and then call the judge to provide oral testimony, all the while hoping that Horst remained in the unlocked conference room. The judge may have then taken time to consider the application. Each of these steps risked destruction of the evidence on the cellphone, which was in Horst’s possession at the time.

For these reasons, we conclude that, under the totality of the circumstances, an exigency existed that required preemptive action by the investigator to ensure that Horst could not destroy the digital evidence on the cellphone. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s denial of Horst’s motion to suppress the evidence found during the search of the cellphone.

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