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Georgia Child Pornography Case Remanded on Cell Phone Search Issue

December 14, 2018

In Martinez v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the denial of a motion to suppress in a child pornography case, finding that the trial court failed to determine whether the scope of the defendant’s consent permitted a forensic examination of his cell phone.

Law enforcement officers visited the defendant’s residence to verify his compliance with sex offender registration requirements. The officers then asked the defendant to show them his cell phone and the defendant complied. A female GBI agent then asked if she could inspect the phone and the defendant consented.

The phone was handed back to the defendant and then a discussion took place between him and the agent about different apps that were on the phone. According to the agent, during the conversation, the defendant voluntarily handed her the phone and she observed an image that she believed was child pornography. The defendant claimed that he did not hand her the phone this second time and that she took it from him.

At this point, the agent handed the phone to another agent who was present at the house who specialized in computer forensics. This other agent then conducted an extensive examination of the phone using forensic software. As a result, the agents discovered over 1,000 images of suspected child pornography on the phone.

The defendant was arrested and eventually indicted for the offense of sexual exploitation of children. He filed a motion to suppress claiming that the searches of his phone were without his consent and therefore unlawful. The motion to suppress was denied and the defendant agreed to a stipulated bench trial so that he could appeal the court’s ruling on the motion to suppress.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the forensic examination of the phone far exceeded the scope of any consent that was initially given. The Court of Appeals noted that a police officer conducting a consensual search is limited by the permission granted and what a reasonable person would have expected the search to entail.

As to the initial search, the Court stated that it would defer to the trial court’s finding that the agent asked for consent to search and that the defendant voluntarily gave consent. However, with regards to the subsequent forensic examination of the phone, the Court was concerned that the defendant may not have consented to a full forensic examination of the phone.

The Court noted that cell phones “present new and complicated issues for law enforcement seeking to conduct a search.” These phones hold a wealth of personal information on them and overly broad searches of them could potentially lead to a significant invasion of privacy.

The Court emphasized that the exchange between the officer and the defendant is critical. It noted that in prior decisions involving automobile searches, it held that an officer’s request to “look inside” a vehicle did not also include consent to search closed containers in the car.

The Court ultimately held that the trial court’s order denying the motion lacked the factual findings necessary to review the scope of the defendant’s consent. Therefore, the Court remanded the case back to the trial court for the purpose of making further factual findings regarding the scope of the defendant’s consent.

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