Court Shuts Down Argument That Warrantless Seizures Of Cell Phones Is Fine Because Criminals Use Cell Phones

from the criminals-are-also-know-to-use-cash,-carry-wallets dept

The Boston Police Department advanced a rather novel legal theory in court recently: because criminals are known to use [common item X], [common item X] can be seized without a warrant. Insert any item into that equation and see what it gets you.

The specifics of the case don't make the theory any less dubious. In this case, the item was a phone owned by a high school student. An investigation of a robbery that resulted in the death of a store clerk resulted in BPD investigators believing the student might be a suspect. From the opinion [PDF] (h/t Brad Heath):

The following day, February 24, 2010, the defendant arrived late to his high school. Pursuant to the school's usual practice for all arriving students, he was searched and his "pay-as-you-go" Samsung/Sprint cellular telephone, equipped with a camera, was confiscated. That afternoon, a detective investigating the robbery-homicide met with one of the school's administrators. The administrator told the detective that the defendant had become "agitated" earlier that day and had left the school without picking up his cellular telephone. The detective notified a supervisor that the school was holding the defendant's telephone. \

Neither the detective nor the supervisor had, at that point, any information that a cellular telephone contained evidence of the robbery and shooting, but they were aware, based on their experience, that such devices often contained useful information in cases involving multiple perpetrators. The supervisor instructed the detective to seize the device without a warrant apparently on the basis of his belief that, if the defendant retrieved the device before a warrant could be obtained, he would destroy the device or erase relevant evidence. Thereafter, the device was transported to the police station, where it was logged as evidence and placed in a special bag designed "to prevent remote intrusion." Police did not search the device.

The fact that the phone could have been retrieved by the student and any evidence on it destroyed was the "exigent circumstances" used to justify the seizure. The phone actually sat around in the evidence locker for 68 days before it was searched. However, the "exigent circumstances" argument failed to salvage the warrantless seizure because the state argued it was allowed to seize anything that could conceivably be used by criminals.

Here, prior to seizing the defendant's cellular telephone, police had received information that the robbery and homicide under investigation had been committed by several people, that the defendant likely was one of those people, and that he owned a cellular telephone. They also knew from experience that coventurers often use cellular telephones to communicate with each other, and that these devices may contain evidence of such communications. According to their own statements, however, the detectives here did not have any "information that [a] cell phone was used in the crime under investigation," nor did they claim that there existed a particular piece of evidence likely to be found on such a device. In essence, then, their decision to seize the defendant's cellular telephone was made because (a) they had reason to believe that the defendant had participated with others in the commission of a robbery-homicide and (b) their training and experience in cases involving multiple defendants suggested that the device in question was likely to contain evidence relevant to those offenses.

The shorter version of this legal theory:

A criminal act was committed. Criminals often use cell phones to communicate and/or document their criminal acts. Therefore, any phone can be seized and held without establishing probable cause for the seizure. Just in case.

The court isn't interested in entertaining law enforcement's assertion that it should be able to seize electronic devices speculatively.

In essence, the Commonwealth is suggesting that there exists a nexus between a suspect's criminal acts and his or her cellular telephone whenever there is probable cause that the suspect was involved in an offense, accompanied by an officer's averment that, given the type of crime under investigation, the device likely would contain evidence. If this were sufficient, however, it would be a rare case where probable cause to charge someone with a crime would not open the person's cellular telephone to seizure and subsequent search.

Noting the Supreme Court's Riley decision, as well as other cases relevant to this search and seizure of cell phones, the state court finds that allowing this argument to salvage the warrantless seizure would turn the Fourth Amendment into a meaningless pile of words.

We cannot accept such a result, which is inconsistent with our admonition that "individuals have significant privacy interests at stake in their [cellular telephones] and that the probable cause requirement . . . under both the Fourth Amendment . . . and art. 14 . . . [must] serve[] to protect these interests." '

Furthermore, it finds that the 68-day gap between the seizure and search was unreasonable. The state argued that the investigation was "complex," but the court points out investigators obtained five other search warrants during that same time period.

Even if it had been more timely in its acquisition of a warrant, that still wouldn't have been able to rescue the evidence it located on the suspect's phone. Because the underlying seizure was performed without probable cause, the use of a warrant for the search did nothing but create a paper trail for "poisoned fruit."

Hopefully this reversal will deter future seizure attempts by state and local law enforcement. Without the ruling in place, anything from cars to computers could end up being taken and held by police under the assumption that criminals use such items. That's not probable cause. That's not even reasonable suspicion. It's fishing expeditions waiting to happen and speculation taking precedent over Fourth Amendment protections.

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Filed Under: 4th amendment, criminals, mobile phones, search, warrants


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Oct 2016 @ 2:47pm

    Re: WT??

    It's my (____), I'll (____) if I want to.
    (____) if I want to.
    (____) if I want to.
    You would (____) too, if it happened to you.

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