United States v. Cristofer Jose Gallegos-Espinal (5th Cir. August 2020)

The Federal Docket

September 22, 2020

Evidence Suppression – A defendant’s voluntary, written consent to a search and seizure of his cell phones authorizes law enforcement to extract contents from the phone at the scene or seize them for later review of the contents.

Cristofer Jose Gallegos-Espinal was indicted on sexual exploitation of a child under 18 U.S.C. § 2251, possession of child pornography under 18 U.S.C. § 2252A, and destruction of property under 18 U.S.C. § 2232.  As a secondary target in an alien-smuggling investigation, he was called to the scene of his mother’s arrest to take custody of his minor siblings.  He signed a broad consent to the search and seizure of his car and phone.  Once the car was searched, a second phone was located and added to the consent form.  While the first phone was connected in his presence to an extracting device, the extraction of the second phone was done outside his presence where incriminating evidence was discovered.

The Court reviewed de novo the government’s appeal challenging the district court’s suppression of the evidence and held that the signed consent form covered the first phone’s extraction and the second phone’s seizure for later review of its contents.  The Court applied the objective reasonableness standard to determine the scope of the defendant’s signed consent form, which stated that “ICE Special Agents are authorized by me to take any letters, papers, materials, or other property which they may wish to examine” and could be understood to include download of a phone’s content.  The Court held that the search did not exceed the scope of consent since a typical reasonable person would understand a search is not simply the physical inspection of the phone, but its contents as well.  The Court reversed the district court’s grant of the motion to suppress as reversible error and remanded for further proceedings.

Judge Graves dissented, holding that the generic consent form deprived defendant of information necessary to make an express or implied limit on the broad consent to search so the district court’s grant to suppress evidence should be upheld.

Appeal from the Southern District of Texas

Opinion by Jolly, joined by Duncan.

Dissent by Graves.

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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