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Colorado Supreme Court: cellphone warrants must be tailored

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP March 22, 2021

When a 15-year-old boy said that Pamela Kay Coke had sexually assaulted him, he alleged that it had occurred in November 2018. He even showed the police text messages from the woman, including one that seemed like an apology.

When the police contacted Coke at her office, they were very polite. They made it clear that she wasn’t under arrest and had no obligation to speak to them. They wrote down her lawyer’s contact information and that seemed to be that.

Except that they took her cellphone. They claimed that they had no choice but to take it as evidence and hold it until a search warrant had been obtained. They said she could make that process go more quickly if she gave them her passcode. She gave them the code and the police used it to unlock and search the phone.

The officers later got a search warrant that authorized them to search all text messages, photos, videos, electronic data, documents and system ownership information.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects Americans from “unreasonable” search and seizure. Was the search of Coke’s cellphone objectively reasonable? If it was not, any evidence the police gleaned from that search would be inadmissible as evidence.

The trial court concluded that the search warrant was far too broad. It should have been tailored to the approximate time of the alleged assault, for example. Instead, it allowed the police access to every aspect of Coke’s life.

The case was appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court. In People of the State of Colorado v. Pamela Kay Coke, the high court affirmed that the search warrant was indeed too broad to pass constitutional muster.

“The warrant at issue here contains no particularity as to the alleged victim or to the time period during which the assault allegedly occurred,” wrote Justice William W. Hood, III for the court. “Rather, it permitted the officers to search all texts, videos, pictures, contact lists, phone records, and any data that showed ownership or possession.”

Since the warrant was not particular to the facts of the alleged assault, it was unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment. Any evidence the police had garnered by searching the phone was inadmissible.

If you have been arrested and your cellphone has been taken, be aware that the police may have overstepped their constitutional authority. Don’t assume you have no options. Call an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.