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Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirms trial court ruling that deputy was not entitled to qualified immunity from lawsuit alleging wrongful seizure of accident bystander's cell phone

On April 2, 2018, in Crocker v. Beatty, No. 2L16-cv-14162, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s ruling that a deputy sheriff was not entitled to qualified immunity in a plaintiff’s civil rights lawsuit. The complaint alleged that the deputy had conducted an illegal seizure of the plaintiff’s cell phone at the scene of a motor vehicle accident. The plaintiff was a bystander to the accident who along with several other motorists took photos of the accident scene with his cellphone. He was subsequently approached by the defendant deputy sheriff who confiscated the phone as evidence, subsequently claiming as a basis for qualified immunity that he reasonably believed that seizure was necessary to prevent the erasure of the images. The Court of Appeals concluded that while the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement does allow for warrantless seizures to prevent “the imminent destruction of evidence,” the seizure of a cell phone from a mere bystander to an accident, if deemed within the exigent search exception, would reflect an “awesome breadth of government power that no court, to our knowledge, has come close to recognizing.” The Court also flatly rejected the defendant’s alternative argument, that the illegality of such a seizure was not well established at the time of the seizure because of the relative novelty of smart phones.