Cell Phone Warrant Of Officer’s Phone Too Broad

Written on 01/05/2024

Cyrus Sukhadia was a Pittsburgh police recruit in 2014. On October 17, 2014, Detectives James Simunovic and Jeffrey Abraham met with Sukhadia in order to conduct an interview regard­ing his arrest on charges which alleged that Sukhadia provided alcohol to an underage female and communicated with her through Tinder. Sukhadia was placed in a soundproof interview room. After being administered Mi­randa warnings, Sukhadia chose not to speak with the officers and the interview was terminated.

Simunovic also took custody of Sukhadia’s cell phone from the arrest­ing officer and placed it on his desk. Sukhadia did not consent to a search of the phone’s contents. Abraham subsequently wrote an application for a search warrant to examine the contents of Sukhadia’s phone. After a judge signed the warrant, Abraham transferred the phone to Detective Timothy Cole to conduct the search.

The warrant authorized the police to search for and seize “all electronic data to include but not limited to phone calls, text messages, emails, photos, videos, call logs, instant messages and correspondence from applica­tions downloaded from Sukhadia’s phone.” After deducing the passcode from Sukhadia’s badge number, Cole extracted all of the phone’s electronic data, referred to as a data “dump,” and entered it into a program to be decod­ed into a viewable file which is then searched and analyzed. It was while generally reading through Sukhadia’s chat messages that Cole discovered a message between Sukhadia and a person identifying themself as a 15-year-old female.

Cole then obtained a second warrant allowing the police to search Sukhadia’s phone and seize “the con­tents of the Apple iPhone including pictures, videos, chat messages, app content/data, MMS and SMS mes­sages, contacts, call logs, and website history.” Based upon the results of the cell phone searches, Sukhadia was ultimately charged with a variety of criminal offenses. When a trial court suppressed the results of both searches, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appealed.

A superior court judge rejected the appeal. The Court found that both the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution and an analogous provision in the Pennsylvania Con­stitution required search warrants to “specifically list the things to be seized.” The Court noted that “a search warrant is overbroad if it authorizes police to search for and seize items without establishing probable cause to search for and seize those items. The Commonwealth argues that that, given the nature of digital information on a cell phone, it was reasonable to search Sukhadia’s entire phone for evidence of his interactions with the minor. This misses the mark. The first warrant was overbroad because of what the police could search for, not where they could search for it. Because the warrant authorized the seizure of all the files in Sukhadia’s phone, it is of no moment where on Sukhadia’s phone they could search for those files.

“Like the face of the warrant, the affidavit of probable cause anticipates a search to seize all electronic data on Sukhadia’s phone. Therefore, even if a reviewing court considered the affida­vit, it would not cure the unreasonable discrepancy between the object of the search and the files for which there was probable cause.

“With respect to the second warrant, the suppression court pro­vided three independent grounds for suppression: (1) the second warrant was the fruit of an unconstitutionally overbroad first warrant; (2) the second warrant stemmed from a search that exceeded the scope of the first warrant; and (3) the second warrant itself was overbroad. The Commonwealth limits its argument against the ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ doctrine to contending that the first warrant was not over­broad. Because the first warrant was overbroad, the Commonwealth’s argu­ment fails. As this is a sufficient basis to sustain the suppression court’s ruling, we do not reach the Commonwealth’s challenges to the alternative grounds for suppression of the second warrant.

“Police had probable cause to search for certain communications between Sukhadia and the minor among the contents of Sukhadia’s cell phone. They obtained a warrant that, based on its plain language, authorized them to search the entire phone and seize everything on it, with no limit­ing language. The suppression court properly concluded that this warrant was overbroad.

“The second search warrant result­ed from a search conducted to the first warrant. Because the first warrant was overbroad, the suppression court prop­erly granted suppression with respect to the second warrant. Therefore, we will affirm the order granting Sukhadia’s motion to suppress evidence obtained from both searches of his cell phone.”

Commonwealth v. Sukhadia, 2023 WL 7409309 (Penn. Super. 2023).