Massachusetts Outlaws Warrantless Cell-Phone Tracking

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fourthamendment500By IT-Lex Intern Amber Williams (LinkedIn)

The highest court in Massachusetts last month became the latest to issue an opinion in the hot-button conflict between law authority’s use of technology and the Fourth Amendment.

This case began with defendant being suspected of murdering his ex-girlfriend and then dumping her body in a river.  The police obtained his phone records to cross check them with the deceased’s cellphone records, including “the date, time, duration, and telephone numbers of outgoing and incoming calls on August 24 and 25, 2004,” the days surrounding the murder.  The Defendant was convicted. From the opinion:

[After conviction] the defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence of his CSLI [cell site location information], which, he argued, was obtained in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.  After hearing, the motion judge allowed the defendant’s motion, concluding that…there was a search such that this information must be suppressed.

The question for the state’s Supreme Judicial Court is:

Whether, consistent with the Massachusetts Constitution, the Commonwealth may obtain from a cellular telephone service provider…CLSI for a particular cellular telephone without first obtaining a search warrant supported by probable cause.

The court found that with constant CLSI surveillance, the tracking would at some point occur inside of a home, a constitutionally protected place.  Because the police cannot search the inside of homes without a warrant, they also cannot track cellular data inside a home without a warrant, and therefore cannot constantly track CLSI:

Considering GPS vehicle location tracking, a number of courts—including this court—have determined that it is only when such tracking takes place over extended periods of time that the cumulative nature of the information collected implicates a privacy interest on the part of the individual who is the target of the tracking.

Both GPS tracking and CSLI keep tabs on a person’s movements.  The Defendant had a recognizable privacy interest that was being infringed upon because the state tracked his information for an extensive period of time.  The court vacated the Defendant’s motion to suppress and remanded the case back to the lower court.

This is the second time that a state court has sided with citizens over law enforcement regarding Fourth Amendment rights, the first being New Jersey last year. On a federal level, courts are more divided about the warrantless tracking of both cellphone and GPS information, and the matter is making its way to the Supreme Court, with oral arguments set for April 29th in two cases.

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