How does the Fourth Amendment apply to deleting a picture from a digital camera? In Burch v. City of Florence, Ala., 913 F.Supp.2d 1221 (N.D.Ala. 2012), the police had received various complaints that the plaintiff John Wesley Burch was causing concern because he was taking pictures of lots of people and cars in town.Burch has performed a variety of odd jobs, including sometimes working since 2004 as a freelance private investigator, or as an assistant to a private investigator.
He would apparently follow people and take lots of pictures of them, all without any apparent reason. A police officer who knew about the complaints spotted the plaintiff and pulled him over for a traffic violation. When the car was stopped, the officer saw the camera in the car. The officer grabbed the camera and started looking through its pictures. When the officer found a picture of the officer’s own license plate (of his personal car), the officer deleted the picture from the camera.
The officer then let the plaintiff go. The plaintiff then filed a pro se civil suit under the Fourth Amendment, claiming that searching the camera and deleting the image violated his Fourth Amendment. The district court ruled that the search of the camera was lawful under the automobile exception because the officer had probable cause to believe that the car possessed evidence of “criminal surveillance” in violation of Alabama Code § 13A–11–32; searching the camera was allowed because the phone was a container just like any other.