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Cell phone search Violated Fourth Amendment Massachusetts SJC rules as officer must establish specific reason to support evidence of criminal activity on the cell phone

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has excluded evidence obtained from the cellphone of the defendant in Commonwealth v. Onyx White following the Boston Police’s failure to prove probable cause for the warrantless seizure of the phone.  The court affirmed that the warrantless seizure of a cell phone in the robbery-homicide investigation could not be justified by the detective’s personal judgment as to whether or not the cell phone contained important information relating to a case. The SJC ruled that the 68 day delay in the respective search warrant application was was unreasonable and that the Boston Police department should have prioritized the application for the respective search warrant or released the cell phone back to the defendant.


About the Case

After speaking with an administrative at the defendant’s high school based on his connection to a robbery-homicide, the administrative had informed the detective that she was in possession of the defendant’s personal cell phone as part of school policy. After gaining approval from his supervisor, the detective seized the cell phone in order to prevent the defendant from tampering with any potential evidence stored in the phone. A search warrant was issued 68 days later following the emergence of new information. Although the detective did not search the phone prior to the search warrant, the forensic search revealed evidence significant to the investigation.


The defense filed a motion to suppress the evidence retrieved from the phone, stating that the initial seizure lacked probable cause and was therefore executed unlawfully. The Superior Court judge allowed the motion but the Commonwealth appealed.


Issues Raised


The issue is that when the detective had seized the phone from the school, he had no information suggesting that the phone contained evidence pertinent to the crime. The detective used his past experience with similar cases and assumed, based on the nature of the crime, that the cell phone would likely be holding valuable information for the case. From his past experience with crimes involving multiple suspects, the detective assumed that the cell phones would have served as a communicative tool for the the defendants before, during and after the crime.


Following the appeal, the court addressed two fundamental questions in order to conclude whether or not the seizure of the phone was done so lawfully:


  1. Did the detective have probable cause to seize the phone? More importantly, was the detective’s assumption that the phone would contain significant information, sufficient as probable cause?


The Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court judge’s decision, stating that the detective’s opinion alone was not sufficient as probable cause to seize the phone. Seizure without a search warrant can only occur during “exigent circumstances”, where the obtainment of a search warrant would be impractical and significantly detrimental to the investigation. Any exigent circumstance will be based on information known to police at the time of the seizure, not on information acquired after the fact. So even if the police’s case against the defendant had progressed during those 68 days, the detective was not justified in seizing the phone based on his personal judgment and the after-the-fact search warrant did not make the seizure or search lawful.


  1. Was it reasonable for the police to wait nearly 10 weeks after seizing the phone to then apply for a search warrant?


The case discusses the “relatively short period of time needed to obtain a search warrant” and that police “must release the item if a warrant is not obtained within that period”. This means that once a warrantless search has been executed, the police must prioritize the obtainment of a search warrant in order to comply with the guidelines set fourth by the Fourth Amendment.


In this case, the Commonwealth stated that the period between the seizure and the application was justified due to the complexity and demands of the case- involving interviews with witnesses, an ongoing grand jury investigation, application/execution of five other search warrants and in increased caseload for the primary detective. Despite understanding the Commonwealth’s argument, the court ruled that the Commonwealth failed to meet its burden and that the 68 day delay was ultimately unreasonable. The evidence obtained from the phone was therefore excluded from the Commonwealth’s case.


Significance for Defense Attorneys

Technology has allowed us to essentially store our entire lives on our cell phones, and it is easy to track a person’s activities by going through their personal cell phone. The Fourth Amendment protects defendant’s property, including cell phones, from being searched unlawfully and without cause. As a result, criminal defense cases often raise the issue of whether the search and seizure of a cell phone was done so lawfully.


The presence of personal devices in our current lives is so prevalent and substantial, it is important that an automatic link between a cell phone and probable cause is not made by law enforcement officials. It is natural for an officer to use their past criminal experiences to assume certain aspects of a case, but the Constitution sees assumption as mere opinion. Just because the detective made a “reasonable assumption” that the phone would have significant information, it did not allow for probable cause.


With many criminal cases, especially a violent offense like robbery-homicide, it is understandable that the police would be under pressure to fulfill a variety of duties in a time-sensitive manner. However, the application for a search warrant is to be considered a high priority due to the constitutional nature of the search and seizure element. There is no specific length of time that the Fourth Amendment or the court have deemed for law enforcement officials to apply for a warrant after a warrantless seizure. With this in mind, a defense attorney can argue that a delay in a search warrant application for already seized evidence is in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights and that the evidence be excluded from trial.

To read the SJC decision visit http://newsite.socialaw.com/services/slip-opinions/slip-opinion-details/commonwealth-vs.-onyx-white

Attorney Michael DelSignore is a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Massachusetts, you can learn more about current issues in criminal law by visiting his FaceBook page.



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