Search Warrant Sufficiently Particular Despite Challenge

Search Warrant Challenge

A defendant in the Eastern District of Virginia challenged the search warrant executed in obtaining his cell phone which led to criminal charges for child pornography and kidnapping. In the case of United States v. Skinner, Case No. 3:19-cr-19, March 10, 2021. EDVA at Richmond (Lauck), a New Zealand citizen challenged a search warrant that that precipitated his arrest on kidnapping and production of child pornography charges. This included a search of two cellphones and his Gmail account that produced evidence concerning his chats and contact with a 13-year-old girl the defendant ultimately attempted to meet up with in Goochland, Virginia.

Challenge to Search Warrants

In attempting to challenge the search warrants, the defendant contended the cell phone warrant fails to meet the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment, and thus amounts to a general warrant. Skinner also argues that the scope of the cellphone warrant exceeded the probable cause available to officers and the magistrate judge at the time the magistrate judge issued the cellphones warrant. The Court declined to suppress the evidence seized by law enforcement.

The Court ruled the search warrant affidavit established probable cause that evidence of child pornography, coercion, and kidnapping would be found on the defendant’s cellphone. It identifies four criminal statutes that law enforcement suspected Skinner of violating. It then listed 10 categories of material to be searched for evidence of violations of those criminal statutes. These categories, rather than being overly broad, mirror the probable cause established by the Gonzalez affidavit and the cellphones warrant as a whole.

The defendant also challenged the search of his Gmail account, which the Court denied finding the gmail warrants limited the 11 itemized subjects to be searched to identified federal offenses, the court finds that they meet the particularity requirement. Skinner protests that the gmail warrants are broader than the cell phones warrant because they “authorized a wholesale seizure of the entire contents of the account, to be sifted by law enforcement.”

Court Maintains its History of Deference

The foregoing case is similar to the Court’s ruling in the United States v Bosyk, Appeal No. 18-4302, Aug. 1, 2019. 4th Cir. (Diaz), in which Ashwell & Ashwell’s challenge to a search warrant application and affidavit prompted a split court decision upholding the search warrant and a nearly 100-page opinion which was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court maintains its history of deference toward debatable facts and occurrences in the record to the Government in upholding potentially problematic search warrants.