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By: E. Charles Reed, Jr.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a police officer violates clearly established law by seizing a bystander’s cellphone at an accident scene in the absence of exigent circumstances.
With the rise of social media and the availability of devices with cameras, newsworthy events and potential evidence of criminal or civil liability can be captured by citizens with fortuitous timing and cellphones. While the methodology of capturing potential evidence has changed, constitutional principles associated with law enforcement’s gathering of that evidence has not. One law enforcement official recently learned this lesson the hard way in Crocker v. Beatty, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 8290 (Apr. 2, 2018).
In May 2012, Deputy Steven Beatty arrived at an accident scene involving an overturned SUV. By the time Beatty had arrived, several bystanders, including a citizen named James Crocker, had taken photographs and video of the scene with their cell phones. Crocker captured images of empty beer bottles, the overturned vehicle and emergency personnel, but no images of the persons involved in the accident. Beatty approached Crocker, took his cellphone and instructed him to leave the area and wait for instructions about when his phone would be returned. Crocker refused to leave and offered to delete the footage in return for his phone. Instead, Beatty placed Crocker under arrest for resisting an officer without violence.
On appeal at the summary judgment stage, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court’s denial of qualified immunity for Beatty. First, the court rejected the argument that Beatty’s seizure was justified by exigent circumstances because Crocker was a non-suspect bystander with no motive to delete any photographs. The fact that Crocker’s cellphone could later be lost did not create an exigency.
More importantly, the Court held that the right to be free from warrantless seizures of personal property was established with “obvious clarity” in May 2012 such that Beatty should have known his conduct violated federal law. “Our case law has sent a consistent message, predating 2012, about the warrantless seizure of personal property and how exigent circumstances may arise. The technology of the iPhone simply does not change our analysis. To hold otherwise would deal a devastating blow to the Fourth Amendment in the face of sweeping technological advancement. These advancements do not create ambiguities in Fourth Amendment law; the principles remain as always. Because of this, Beatty is not entitled to qualified immunity.”
The Court did not address, and may not have been presented with, the policy implications for agencies responding to mass-casualty or critical incidents in metropolitan centers – where hundreds of witnesses may be present, each with different video clips taken at different times and from different angles. However, the takeaway from this case is while technology may push products further and further into the future, the prudent law enforcement officer will apply the legal authority of the past to minimize being held liable for his or her actions.
Charles Reed is member of Freeman, Mathis, & Gary’s Government Section and regularly defends government employees in in civil rights cases. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 678-399-6351.