February 26th, 2015

U.S. v. Winn

By: Siyuan Wang



In this case, a man named Winn (the defendant) had been seen using his cell phone to photograph or videotape a group of minors in their swimsuits while rubbing his genitals. The government asked for and obtained a warrant to search Winn’s phone for all evidence of public indecency stored inside it. The officer used the Cellebrite UFED Touch machine to extract data from the cell phone, which included “two calendar events, a forty-four item call log, twenty-three contacts, eighty text messages, 312 images, and twenty-five videos.” No evidence of public indecency was obtained, but some of the data was evidence of child pornography. Winn seeks to suppress the evidence, claiming that the warrant was overbroad. The court agreed with defendant on this issue and reasoned:

The warrant authorized the seizure of “any or all files” contained on the cell phone and its memory card that “constitute[d] evidence of the offense of [Public Indecency 720 ILCS 5/11–30],” including, but not limited to, the calendar, phonebook, contacts, SMS messages, MMS messages, emails, pictures, videos, images, ringtones, audio files, all call logs, installed application data, GPS information, WIFI information, internet history and usage, any system files, and any delated data (Docs.22–2, 22–3).

The major, overriding problem with the description of the object of the search—“any or all files”—is that the police did not have probable cause to believe that everything on the phone was evidence of the crime of public indecency. The description was a template used by the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office for all cell phone searches. Templates are, of course, fine to use as a starting point. But they must be tailored to the facts of each case. This particular template authorized the seizure of virtually every piece of data that could conceivably be found on the phone. The Supreme Court put the scope of such a wholesale seizure in perspective by explaining that it “would typically expose the government to far more than the most exhaustive search of a house.” Riley v. California, 134 S.Ct. 2473, 2491 (2014) (emphasis in original). Obviously, the police will not have probable cause to search through and seize such an expansive array of data every time they search a cell phone.

The court went on to explain what a specific warrant looks like:

the warrant could have described the location of the incident as well as the subjects of the images—children at a swimming pool, or more specifically young girls in swimsuits at the Mascoutah Public Pool. See, e.g., Mann, 592 F.3d at 780–81 (where warrant authorized police to search for “images of women in locker rooms or other private areas” for evidence of voyeurism).

This reasoning demonstrates court’s concerns of aggregating data stored in cell phones and how it influences the scope of warrant. As recognized in Riley, cell phone is different in the sense of type and range of data contained. The rationale is that due to the large storage capacity, the expectation of privacy is heightened in such context.

This is an easy case because the law enforcement used a template warrant, which was “patently” overbroad by nature. The court took a very restricted approach by saying that only photos and videos related to public indecency crime should be searched since only these two types of data were relevant. Along this line of reasoning, we need to first match the possible form of evidence with the crime feature in order to determine the scope of a warrant. Then problem of how extensive the search need to be in accordance with the suspected crime will arise.