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Court Rules Motion to Suppress Cell Phone Evidence Would Have Been Fruitless

December 9, 2021

The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that his counsel was ineffective since the defendant could not show how it would have changed the trial's outcome.

In McClure v. State, the defendant contended that his trial attorney was ineffective for failing to file a motion to suppress evidence discovered on his cell phone. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that even if the motion was granted, the State likely would have been able to secure a second warrant for the phone that would have still resulted in the admission of the evidence at trial. Therefore, the Court affirmed the defendant’s convictions for child molestation, incest, aggravated child molestation, and aggravated sexual battery.

The defendant was accused of molesting his daughters. His cell phone was then seized pursuant to a search warrant. On the phone were naked pictures of his daughters that were introduced at trial.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the search warrant did not authorize the officers to search the contents of the phone since (1) it did not provide for the making of a forensic copy of the data, (2) it did not particularly describe the evidence sought by the officers, and (3) it did not limit the scope of the officers’ search in any way.

Legal Issues on Appeal

The defendant’s challenges to the search warrant, if sustained, would certainly result in the voiding of the search warrant. At that point, it would be as if no warrant was ever obtained. The question would then be whether there would be any other way for this evidence to be obtained lawfully.

Under Georgia law, the “inevitable discovery doctrine” allows for the admission of evidence that would otherwise have been suppressed if the State can show that it would have inevitably discovered the same evidence by some lawful independent means.

When this issue is being raised at a pretrial motion to suppress, the State has the burden of establishing that the doctrine applies. However, on appeal, it is the defendant who has the burden of proof to show that the evidence would have been suppressed had his trial counsel filed the proper motion.

Does the Inevitable Discovery Doctrine Apply?

The Court first noted that the State was in lawful possession of the defendant’s cell phone prior to obtaining the search warrant. Therefore, it was held that even if a pretrial motion to suppress was granted based on the warrant being defective, the State would have been able to obtain a new search warrant which likely would have cured any of the alleged deficiencies.

The Court concluded that had the State obtained a valid new search warrant, it would have “inevitably discovered” the contents of the cell phone. As a result, the Court held that the ineffective assistance of counsel claim could not be proven because the defendant could not show that there is a reasonable probability that the result of the proceedings would have been different.

Court Rejects IAC Claim on Another Basis

The Court also found that the defendant’s claim should fail because some of this evidence was cumulative of other evidence introduced at the trial. It pointed out that only one of the exhibits from the cell phone was what the Court would characterize as “highly prejudicial.” This exhibit consisted of text messages sent from his phone that contained statements corroborating his daughters’ allegations of abuse.

These same text messages, however, were also found on the defendant’s wife’s cell phone and the State introduced these texts in the form of screenshots from her phone. There was no challenge to the State’s seizure of that evidence as the defendant did not even have standing to contest it.

Thus, even if the inevitable discovery doctrine did not apply, the Court still would have found that the defendant could not show that the suppression of the evidence from his phone would have changed the outcome of the trial.

Remaining Issues

The defendant also argued that other text messages introduced from his daughter’s phone were hearsay and should not have been admitted at trial. The Court rejected this argument, finding that the purpose of the admission of these messages was merely to show that the defendant did not deny the allegations in any of these texts with the daughter. Because of that, the Court held that these messages were not hearsay since they were only being admitted for this purpose and not for the purpose of proving the truth of the matters stated in the messages themselves.

Finally, the Court rejected the defendant’s last argument that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to request that certain limiting instructions be given to the jury regarding these text messages from the daughter’s phone. Similarly, the Court rejected this claim as the defendant could not show how these instructions would have changed the outcome of the trial.

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