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Police arrested a man after guessing his phone password. ND justices say they needed a warrant

Outside the North Dakota Supreme Court chambers. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — The North Dakota Supreme Court has allowed a Devils Lake man to withdraw a guilty plea because police arrested him using evidence found through a warrantless search of his lost cellphone.

Joseph Franklin Valles was arrested in 2018 on drug charges and for allegedly violating a restraining order after police guessed the password on his phone and searched through private images and messages, according to a Supreme Court decision filed Thursday, April 11.

Police officers are allowed to search the contents of an abandoned phone without a warrant, but Justice Jerod Tufte wrote in the court’s decision that police and prosecutors failed to prove Valles’ phone was abandoned.

The phone was brought to police by a woman who found it in a parking on April 5, 2018. An officer guessed the phone’s grid-pattern password and looked through photos and videos, identifying Valles and a woman who had a restraining order against Valles. He also saw what appeared to be drugs and drug paraphernalia, prompting him to give the phone to the Lake Region Narcotics Task Force.

The case will now be heard again but without evidence resulting from warrants granted based on information found on the cellphone.

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