Cops Dodge Warrant Requirement By Grabbing Two Weeks Of Data, But Entering Only 6 Hours Of It As Evidence
from the too-clever-by-much-more-than-half dept
Today’s novel legal argument: take a ruling on cell site location info warrant requirements and make it fit the warrantless data haul obtained earlier by submitting only the “quantity” the court has previously OKed.
To get a sense of where we’re going with this, here’s a bit from the opening paragraphs of the opinion:
The defendants, Jason Estabrook and Adam Bradley, stand indicted for murder and related crimes arising out of a shooting that took place on July 7, 2012, in Billerica. They moved to suppress evidence of historical CSLI pertaining to Bradley’s cellular telephone that the police initially obtained in July, 2012, without a search warrant but in compliance with 18 U.S.C. § 2703 (2006), and then, in November, 2013, reobtained pursuant to a warrant.
The CSLI was sought twice. This is the first sign that something’s not quite right. Historical cell site location information doesn’t change. That’s the thing about history. And yet, the police obtained it twice: once with a subpoena (which was wrong) and once with a warrant (the lawful way to do it).
You see, the Massachusetts courts had already created a bright-line (of sorts) for the acquisition of cell site location data. Under the state’s interpretation of its Declaration of Rights, cell site location info carries with it a reasonable expectation of privacy. This status demands the use of a warrant. An earlier decision determined that small amounts (up to six hours) of CSLI can be obtained without a warrant, as the limited time period makes acquisition much less analogous to long-term tracking.
The police knew they could only get six hours of CSLI without a warrant, but they had already grabbed two week’s worth using only a subpoena. But the officers had an angle…
In this case, however, because the Commonwealth requested two weeks of historical CSLI, a search warrant was required, even though the Commonwealth proposes to use only six hours of the CSLI as evidence at trial.
That’s a very opportunistic reading of the court’s intentions. If the police were so inclined, they could subpoena a year’s worth of CSLI and trim it down to only the most incriminating six hours of data before presenting it in court. Or they could just go fishing with subpoenas, look over the collected data and see if they could match any six hours of it to an investigation or prosecution.
The court points out the flaw in this logic, which, let’s face it, the cops knew all along.
It is important to emphasize that, in terms of reasonable expectation of privacy, the salient consideration is the length of time for which a person’s CSLI is requested, not the time covered by the person’s CSLI that the Commonwealth ultimately seeks to use as evidence at trial.
The warrant requirement is for the “asking,” not the “telling,” to put it elementary school terms.
Fortunately for the police, the twice-obtained CSLI didn’t harm their case too much. The defense argued that other evidence — including statements made to the police — should be suppressed because it originated from tainted CSLI. The court, however, concludes that a great deal of evidence was obtained independently and that only a few moments from various interviews could be traced back to inferences drawn from the cell site location info.
The court also came to the conclusion that the warrant the police sought well after it already had the subpoenaed CSLI in hand was likely legitimate, rather than just a shoddy attempt to cover up its earlier misdeed. Over the course of several paragraphs, the court lists all of the information gathered by officers prior to their issuing of the subpoena and finds it adds up to probable cause that isn’t overly-reliant on the already-acquired CSLI info. The court doesn’t offer any speculation as to what actually happened here, but rather points out that the CSLI was still lawfully-obtained, and anything stemming from the latter acquisition cannot be suppressed.
While this obtain-twice, admit-once method of cell site evidence acquisition didn’t pay off for the criminal defendants, it at least provides another citable example of how far law enforcement agencies are willing to go to bypass the mild logistical hiccup that is obtaining a warrant.