MIAMI — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has ruled it was a Fourth Amendment violation for a law enforcement officer to take away a person's cellphone without a "reasonable basis."

In its April 2 ruling, the appeals court issued affirmed the district court's decision to deny Martin County deputy sheriff Steven Eric Beatty's motion for summary judgment in the case involving the seizure of an iPhone at an accident scene. The court's decision comes after James P. Crocker, who witnessed a May 2012 car accident, sued Beatty for taking his cellphone at the scene. Crocker was driving northbound on Interstate Highway 95 when he observed an overturned SUV in the interstate median that had recently been involved in an accident.

Crocker said he pulled over on the left shoulder and ran toward the SUV to assist. A road ranger arrived soon after and assured him and other bystanders that emergency personnel were near. When they arrived, Crocker stepped away but remained in the interstate median about 50 feet from the wreck.

Crocker then photographed empty beer bottles, firefighters and the SUV. About 30 seconds later, Beatty allegedly came up behind Crocker and took his phone without warning, said it was "evidence of the state" and told him he could reclaim it later.

Crocker insisted that Beatty return the phone and the officer told him to leave. When Crocker refused to leave without the phone, Beatty allegedly arrested him for resisting arrest without violence. Crocker subsequently filed a civil rights lawsuit for false arrest and unreasonable seizure of his phone under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983.

Beatty won a motion for summary judgment based on immunity, except for the phone claim, which he appealed. The 11th Circuit said exigent circumstances permit warrantless seizures of property in some situations. For example, it's permissible to prevent the "immediate destruction of evidence" during a crime.

But the appeals court said, "no reasonable law enforcement officer would have believed that the evidence on Crocker's iPhone was at risk of imminent destruction at the time of the seizure." 

"For obvious reasons, evidence is more likely to be destroyed when it is in the possession of a person who may be convicted by it," the court said in its opinion. "Crocker, however, had no involvement with the car accident that he had photographed. He was merely a curious passerby."

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