Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decides Admissibility of Cell Site Location Information
Cell site location information (CSLI) is a highly controversial form of evidence used in courts across the country. CSLI allows cell phone companies to give your location information to law enforcement if you are a suspect in a crime. CSLI raises many privacy and seizure issues, including an issue surrounding the right to privacy. Is CSLI too intrusive, or is it a technology that will lower rates of violent crime?
In Commonwealth v. Louis, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court released a holding that may be detrimental to future cyber-privacy rights.
What happened in the Louis case?
On September 30th, 2010, Wallace Durate, Benjamin Peirce, and Shaquan Jacobs devised a plan to rob Lauren Lob, a woman whom Durate had purchased marijuana from in the past. Jacobs told the group that they could secure firearms for the robbery from the defendant and indicated that the defendant wanted to participate in the robbery. Around 8 pm that night, the group drove to Lob’s home to initiate the robbery. Their scheme ultimately failed when the would-be victim did not answer her door.
Frustrated that their plan fell through, Pierce suggested that they rob another person, Adam Coveney, for Percocet. Pierce initiated a conversation with Convey through text message and lured him out of the apartment.
At approximately 11 pm, the defendant shot the victim and killed the victim outside his apartment. The victim was found on the ground outside his apartment complex with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. The victim was transported to the hospital, where he later died.
Cell phone records obtained from various cellular services established a constant stream of communication among the coventurers, and location data placed them in the same area at relevant times. In particular, Jacobs’ and the defendant’s cell phones showed phone and text messages between 3 pm and 4 pm. The movements of the defendant’s cell phone were consistent with the defendant’s movements.
Nowadays, cell phones might as well be an extension of a person’s body. Most people always have their cell phone on their person and tracking the location of a cell phone is nearly identical to tracking the location of the person themselves.
On appeal, the defendant argues that his text messages were improperly admitted in evidence at trial, that CSLI data from his cell phone was unconstitutionally admitted at trial without a warrant or probable cause.
In Massachusetts, CSLI is admissible if a requisite nexus is established between the alleged criminal activity and the defendant’s telephone communications. In this case, the affidavit established that the victim’s cellphone had a series of text messages from Peirce. Further, Jacobs was heard talking on a cell phone with someone about firearms and committing a robbery. The coventurers, in this case, all made calls and sent text messages to each other to organize the robbery and coordinated to plan the crime. These various facts, taken together, create the required connection between communications on the defendant’s cell phone and the crimes at issue in this case, including the text messages. The court reasoned that these facts established the probable cause needed for the CSLI records to be admitted into evidence.
It is not just the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that takes this view on CSLI, the Supreme Court held in Carpenter v. United States, that the government must generally obtain a search warrant supported by probable cause before acquiring CSLI. However, in this case, the multiple dissents emphasize the fact that cell phone site records are business records held by cell phone service providers. Cell-site records are no different from the many other business records that the government has a lawful right to obtain by compulsory process, and should not be obtained by probable cause.
However, the majority rule now is that CSLI is searchable and admissible if there is probable cause. This is a troubling precedent for the future of privacy rights in this county. Fourth amendment rights should not be thrown aside with the advancement of technology. Whether or not someone has a cell phone should not give the green flag for law enforcement to track your location. Although the law is still developing, unfortunately, these early precedents are setting the foundation for a new era of privacy rights.
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