ARLINGTON, Va.—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) signed onto an amicus brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, urging the court to hold that seizing the phones of protestors and holding onto them long after those protestors are released from custody is unreasonable and unconstitutional.
In August 2020, Oyoma Asinor, a photojournalist, was covering the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C. A little after midnight, Oyoma and several protestors were arrested, and police seized their belongings. Even though Oyoma did nothing wrong, he was kept in custody overnight; when he was released the following morning, police refused to give back his phone. It took Oyoma nearly a year to get his phone back.
Earlier in that same month, Alexander Cameron faced nearly the same exact fate. Alexander was also arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest and had his belongings seized. When he was released the following day, police again refused to return his phone. It took him nearly nine months to get it back.
In 2021, both Oyoma and Alexander brough lawsuits against the District of Columbia for unreasonable retention of their phones under the Fourth Amendment. But the district court unfortunately dismissed these claims, wrongly holding that the Fourth Amendment “does not speak to prolonged delays in returning lawfully seized property.” Now, both Oyoma and Alexander are appealing their cases.
“Even a lawfully conducted seizure becomes unreasonable once its justification expires,” said IJ Attorney Robert Frommer, the head of IJ’s Project on the Fourth Amendment. “In these cases, as soon as Oyoma and Alexander were released, police should have returned their possessions. The Fourth Amendment means the government cannot decide to hold onto your personal belongings for as long as it wants.”
Decisions from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and D.C.’s federal district court have held that after the justification for a lawful seizure has expired, police must either return the seized property or “secure a new justification” for holding onto it.
As part of its Project on the Fourth Amendment, IJ stands up for the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans throughout the country. Those lawsuits include one challenging the United States Postal Service opening the packages of an Oakland-based screen printing company without a warrant, another against Wilmington, Delaware’s system of allowing a private towing company to wrongfully take and keep people’s cars, and a similar case against Chicago’s impound racket.