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SJC Holds that Requiring Defendant’s Cell Phone to Reveal its Real Time Location Constitutes a Search Under Art. 14

smart-phone-1499871In Commonwealth v. Almonor, which “raises an issue of first impression in Massachusetts,” the Supreme Judicial Court opined that the warrantless “police action causing [the defendant’s] cell phone to reveal its real-time location constitute[d] a search in the constitutional sense under … art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.” Ultimately, however, the Court concluded that suppression was not required because the search “was reasonable under the exigent circumstances exception to the search warrant requirement.”

The basic facts were as follows. “The police quickly identified the defendant as the person suspected of murdering the victim with a sawed-off shotgun.” After ascertaining the defendant’s cell phone number, “the police contacted the defendant’s cellular service provider … to request the real-time location of his cell phone…. The service provider … ‘pinged’ the defendant’s cell phone, an action that caused … [it] to transmit its real-time [GPS] coordinates to the service provider.” This information, “in combination with information from another witness, [enabled the police] to identify a single address in Brockton [the home of the defendant’s former girlfriend] as the defendant’s likely location…. [P]olice entered the home with the consent of the homeowner and located the defendant in [a] bedroom. After the defendant was arrested, police obtained and executed a search warrant for the bedroom and seized a sawed-off shotgun and a bulletproof vest as evidence of the defendant’s involvement in the victim’s shooting death.” The defendant filed a motion to suppress that evidence, arguing that it was the fruit of an unlawful search under art. 14. The judge allowed the motion on the grounds “that the ping of the defendant’s cell phone was a search under … art. 14 and that the search was not justified by the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.” The Commonwealth filed an interlocutory appeal.

In its decision, the SJC stated, “The intrusive nature of police action that causes an individual’s cell phone to transmit its real-time location raises distinct privacy concerns.” “[O]ur society would certainly not expect that the police could, or would, transform a cell phone into a real-time tracking device without judicial oversight.” The Court “conclude[d] that by causing the defendant’s cell phone to reveal its real-time location, the Commonwealth intruded on the defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy…. The Commonwealth therefore conducted a search in the constitutional sense under art. 14.” The Court then considered whether the “police were confronted with an exigency such that it was impracticable for them to obtain a warrant.” The Court “conclude[d] that under the circumstances at the time the defendant’s cell phone was pinged, the police had reasonable grounds to believe that obtaining a warrant would be impracticable because taking the time to do so would have posed a significant risk that the [defendant would] flee,” “that [he] would attempt to conceal or destroy the shotgun” with which he killed the victim, or that “the safety of the police or others [would] be endangered…. Faced with this exigency, the police acted entirely reasonably in pinging the defendant’s cell phone” without a warrant, in order to determine its location. “Accordingly, the motion judge erred in concluding that the [police action] was not justified by exigent circumstances.”

New technologies have brought new methods for law enforcement to conduct searches and seizures. If you or a loved one is facing charges in which the police used such methods to obtain evidence against you, it is of critical importance that you have a lawyer who can properly advise you as to what steps can and should be taken to challenge the admissibility of evidence and limit your exposure.  Attorney Daniel Cappetta is well versed in search and seizure law and will fight to protect your Constitutional rights. Call him for a free consultation today.

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