CA5: GFE saves search of cell phone seized when not specified in SW

A juvenile probation officer started an investigation into whether girls under his supervision were being pimped out. Substantial evidence was developed that concluded they were. A search warrant was obtained for defendant’s property, and computers were mentioned for seizure but not cell phones. The cell phone seized was searched with a later warrant. The government’s theory was that “ledgers” would include cell phones as a place to keep records, but the court disagrees because of the difference between cell phones and ledgers. The court finds that the warrant could not be construed to include cell phones, but it gives the government the benefit of the good faith exception because it wasn’t way off the mark. The FBI had no reason to really believe the seizure of the cell phone was wrong. United States v. Fulton, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 19288 (5th Cir. June 27, 2019):

This same approach can be applied when, as here, the initial seizure of an object was without justification, but a later-obtained warrant led to the discovery of incriminating evidence.

We have already discussed the events that followed the seizure of the cellphone. We conclude that viewed objectively, an FBI agent who obtained a search warrant in these circumstances would not have had reason to believe the seizure and continued possession of the cellphone by the Galveston police were unlawful. We so conclude because the question of whether the warrant applied to the cellphone does not lead to an easy negative answer, though that is the one we have given. Consequently, the seizure of the cellphone was “close enough to the line of validity” to permit the officer to prepare the second warrant that led to the search of the cellphone. The federal search warrant was “sought and executed by a law enforcement officer in good faith.” Id.

The cellphone evidence obtained was properly admitted.

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