San Diego PD limits cellphone search and seizure after protester sues

A protester arrested in 2020 claimed that a lengthy, warrantless seizure of her cellphone violated her Fourth Amendment rights


By Lyndsay Winkley
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — A lawsuit brought by a Black Lives Matter protester who sued San Diego police after officers seized her cellphone and refused for months to return it was settled this week with a deal that narrows when police can take phones and for how long.

The suit was filed in federal court in January 2021 on behalf of Christina Griffin-Jones. According to the complaint, Griffin-Jones was arrested and jailed after participating in a protest against police violence in September 2020. Officers seized Griffin-Jones' cellphone without a warrant, and, unlike her other belongings, it was not returned to her when she was released.

Protestors march Thursday, June 4, 2020, in San Diego after the death of George Floyd.
Protestors march Thursday, June 4, 2020, in San Diego after the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

The complaint argued that the lengthy seizure of Griffin-Jones' phone not only violated her Fourth Amendment rights, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures, but it chilled her ability and the ability of others to organize and participate in protests out of fear that their phones would be searched without a warrant.

The decision to take Griffin-Jones' phone was not an isolated incident. Department officials acknowledged they had seized the cellphones of several protesters who had been arrested after an August 2020 demonstration and had not returned the devices more than a month later.

The lawsuit — filed by a host of law organizations including the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, the Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance, Brody McBride Law, and the law firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo — was settled Wednesday. The deal was made only after the city of San Diego agreed to make significant changes to the rules governing when officers can search and seize cellphones.

Under the new guidelines, officers must get a warrant to hold or search any phone they seize, or they must return the phone in a reasonable amount of time. A number of factors play in determining what amount of time is reasonable, including the complexity of the case and the number of witnesses and arrests involved.

The ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties said in a statement Wednesday that the new policy offers protections to people whose phones are taken. It also aligns with the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which generally requires law enforcement to obtain warrants before accessing data on electronic devices.

[RELATED: Federal Appeals Court rules gun discovery violates Fourth Amendment because traffic stop was unlawfully extended]

Branden Sigua, staff attorney with the Community Advocates for Just & Moral Governance, said the settlement was designed to help protect people's privacy while they exercise their right to demonstrate in San Diego.

"This settlement is not only a victory for privacy and protester rights in San Diego, but a long overdue revision of the city's policies in the age of smartphones," Sigua said in a statement. "Given the broad range and extremely personal nature of the data available on an individual's phone, we are happy that there is an acknowledgement of the sanctity of these devices which are central to many people's lives."

San Diego police Capt. Jeff Jordon said the new procedures were first distributed to officers in September and provide clear expectations about the need to release cellphones in a timely matter if they are not being held for further investigative reasons. The policy was formalized in May.

"There's a recognition here that people live a large portion of their lives on their phones," Jordon said. He noted that a growing number of people don't have house phones anymore and that important, personal information, like banking and health details, are housed in cellphones. "Obviously we need to provide clear direction to our officers about returning them because of this importance."

The policy was last updated in April 2019.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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