1. “The court of appeals employed a heightened standard for probable cause, departing from the flexible standard required by law.”
2. “The court of appeals applied inconsistent standards for probable cause in its analyses of the warrant affidavits for the searches of the appellant’s cell phone data and the location information associated with the appellant’s cellphone number.”
Upon Stocker’s arrest for capital murder (based on retaliation or obstruction), police seized his cell phone. An officer later obtained a warrant to search the phone. The officer’s affidavit stated that based on his training and experience, people engaged in crime and flight use cell phones and social media to communicate. Therefore, the officer sought to download data related to Stocker's previous shooting of the victim a few months before killing him. The trial court denied his motion to suppress, which challenged the warrant based on a lack of probable cause.
Relying on State v. Baldwin, No. PD-0027-21 (Tex. Crim. App. 2022), holding that boilerplate language about cell phone use among criminals is insufficient to establish probable cause, the court of appeals reversed. It concluded that the affidavit did not tie Stocker’s phone use to the capital murder. It then held that Stocker was harmed because the evidence was used to prove the retaliation or obstruction elements for capital murder.
The State argues that nothing in Baldwin or the law requires a warrant affidavit to connect the search object to the offense for which the defendant is tried. The law only requires probable cause that criminal activity was committed and that a search would likely produce evidence of that crime. Here, the affidavit was based on the prior aggravated assault and sought related information. The State argues that the affidavit links Stocker to the crime, and the phone’s proximity to Stocker links it to Stocker and the crime. Further, “[g]iven the ubiquity and inseparability of cell phones in modern life, the officer’s training and experience in similar cases, and the facts of this specific case, the magistrate exercised common-sense judgment[.]”
The State also argues that the court applied a higher standard to the cell phone affidavit than it did to the CSLI affidavit, which it concluded supplied probable cause. The information in both was essentially the same, and the incongruous treatment between the two created new law.