In this case, police in Stuart, Florida were notified that there was a domestic disturbance taking place in a camper parked at the residence of the defendant (Babcock). Officers were told that a female could be heard yelling “Stop, stop, stop.” Deputy Olson responded to the disturbance call. When Olson arrived, she knocked on the door of the camper. After the knock, Babcock came out, closed the door behind him, and told her no one else was inside. As soon as he said this, a teenage girl (called only “C.A.” in the opinion) said she was “coming out” and she stepped out of the camper wearing yoga shorts and a camouflage jacket. Deputy Olson saw blood on the girl’s thigh.  At that point, Babcock handed Olson his cell phone to show her a video of C.A. sitting on a bed holding a knife to her throat saying she wanted to die. In the video, Babcock was taunting her, telling her she was “dumb as f***.”

By this time backup had arrived and Babcock and C.A. were interviewed separately. Babcock denied knowing C.A.’s age and stated that although he had known her for years they were not in a relationship. Babcock then gave permission to search the camper and officers found blood on the bed sheets and prescription drugs scattered around. A detective, who had Babcock’s phone at this point, asked Babcock if he could inspect it further. Babcock refused and asked for it back. The detective refused and kept it.

Meanwhile, C.A. had been transported to a hospital. She denied having a relationship with Babcock, until she was told that they had Babcock’s phone. At this time, she told them there were sexually explicit images of her on the phone. Two days later a warrant was obtained to search the phone and the search revealed sexually explicit images of C.A. and Babcock together.

Babcock was charged with producing a visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct with a minor in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251. His defense attorney filed a motion to suppress the images, arguing that the warrantless seizure of the cell phone violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The government countered with three alternative arguments. First, the government argued the officers had a reasonable suspicion to investigate further (basically arguing that the phone was seized for two days under a Terry Stop). Second, they argued they had probable cause to seize the phone because it contained evidence of a crime and seizure was necessary to preserve the evidence.  Lastly, the government threw a “Hail Mary” and argued that either consent or the inevitable discovery doctrine would have prevented the exclusion of the evidence.

The court held that due to the two-day duration of the seizure of the phone prior to obtaining the search warrant, and the intrusiveness of the detention, combined with the lack of diligence in obtaining a warrant, the seizure fell outside of the Terry Stop exception for investigative detention. However, the court further held that the officers had the collective knowledge needed to establish probable cause that the cell phone contained evidence of criminal activity.  The court also held that the officers had a reasonable belief that the evidence would be destroyed or removed before a warrant could be obtained, and therefore the warrantless seizure of the phone was reasonable under the destruction of evidence exigent circumstances.

Editor’s Note:  This 32-page decision gives a great analysis of what is required to temporarily seize an object to conduct an investigative detention (Terry Stop).  

To read or download the full opinion CLICK HERE