SAN DIEGO – Today, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC), Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance (MoGo), and Singleton Law Firm, APC (SLF), filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the City of San Diego’s prolonged and ongoing seizure of a protester’s cell phone.
Plaintiff Christina Griffin-Jones’ cell phone was seized when she was arrested by San Diego Police Department (SDPD) officers during an anti-police violence demonstration on Sept. 23, 2020. While she was released the following day, SDPD refused and continues to refuse to return her phone.
With the lawsuit, Griffin-Jones’ lawyers also filed a motion asking the court to compel the city to return her phone immediately.
Griffin-Jones was participating in a demonstration inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement calling attention to police officers’ use of deadly force against Black people across the nation, including the March 13, 2020, shooting and killing of Breonna Taylor in her home in Louisville, Ky. Many incidents of police brutality have been captured on video by people using their cell phones.
“Cell phone video footage has brought global attention to law enforcement officers’ wanton use of force on Black community members, sparked public outrage on the issue and inspired millions to take to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement,” said ACLUF-SDIC Staff Attorney Jonathan Markovitz. “When police seize and unlawfully maintain possession of people’s phones, they strike at the heart of one of the most important struggles for social justice in our lifetimes. Such prolonged seizures must be challenged and ended.”
On Sept. 24, 2020, ACLUF-SDIC, MoGo and SLF sent a letter to the police department demanding the immediate return of phones seized from protesters at an Aug. 28 protest against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., which was recorded on a cell phone. The letter explained that a warrant is generally required to search a cell phone, and law enforcement agencies must promptly seek search warrants for impounded property. Otherwise, prolonged seizure of the property is unconstitutional.
Responding to the letter, SDPD contended that “phones which are impounded as evidence will remain in our custody and if the contents are going to be sought, a detective will request a search warrant from a judge as required by law.”
California law requires that owners of seized cell phones receive written notice when a law enforcement agency executes a warrant to search their phone. To date, however, the plaintiff has not received this notice.
ACLUF-SDIC, MoGo and SLF are also asking that SDPD bring its cell phone search and seizure policies into compliance with both the U.S. Constitution and the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act (CalECPA). For example, the policies must provide that when persons are released from custody, SDPD shall promptly return their cell phones unless it immediately seeks and obtains a search warrant as required by the Fourth Amendment and CalECPA.
“It is important to understand that what happened to our client is not an isolated incident. The illegal seizure of protesters’ cell phones now appears to be a common practice and a tool for repression,” said MoGo Executive Director Geneviéve Jones-Wright. “I am afraid that law enforcement, including SDPD, is using this tactic to intimidate and discourage protesters and organizers in an effort to silence them. Whatever the purpose behind the actions, the actions are not lawful. This is why it is important for lawyers to step up and protect our cherished constitutional freedoms.”
People’s cell phones carry troves of personal, private information that must be protected from law enforcement agencies’ illegal and unconstitutional intrusions.
“From banking and healthcare to food deliveries and rideshares, people rely on cell phones like never before. Courts and legislatures have rightly determined that cell phones deserve special protections. SLF attorneys are determined to ensure SDPD and all other law enforcement agencies respect our client’s constitutional rights and comply with the laws on seizing cell phones,” said Trenton Lamere, an associate with SLF.