Recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court vacated a lower court’s order permitting a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence. The Massachusetts criminal case arose when police arrested the defendant in connection with a fatal shooting. According to the court’s opinion, officers confiscated the defendant’s cell phone and then obtained a search warrant to search it for evidence. Before trial, the judge granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the cell phone evidence. The judge reasoned that the police obtained the warrant without establishing a sufficient nexus between the murder and the defendant’s cell phone. She did not address whether the search was “sufficiently particular,” but she noted that the search was not “limited in time.” The Commonwealth appealed and the court reviewed whether there was probable cause and if the search exceeded the scope of the warrant.
The Fourth Amendment and Massachusetts Declaration of Rights require that a magistrate determine whether probable cause exists before issuing a search warrant. There must be a “substantial basis” that lead a fact finder to determine that the items sought are related to the criminal activity under investigation, and in the place to be searched when the warrant is issued. Essentially, along with probable cause, the government must establish a “nexus” between the item sought and the alleged crime. Probable cause inquiries are fact-based, and courts resolve them on a case-by-case basis.
In this case, an eyewitness described seeing a male standing over the victim then fleeing the scene in a light-colored vehicle with an out-of-state license plate. Another witness saw a light-colored sedan driving quickly down a street. He then saw the car’s occupants moving around in the car, as if they were changing their clothes. When police arrived, they found the three men, including the defendant, sitting in the car. After realizing that one of the men matched the shooter’s description, police removed all three men from the car. At the time, the defendant was talking on his cell phone. Officers discovered a firearm that had recently been fired. Moreover, the victim’s cell phone contained a violent conversation between the victim and a contact believed to be one of the occupants. After that, the detective received a warrant to search the defendant’s cell phone. The warrant did not have any date restrictions.
Here, the court found a substantial basis to conclude that the defendant committed the homicide, and it was reasonable to expect that his cell phone contained evidence. Further, the defendant was adamant that he wanted his girlfriend to retrieve the rental car used as the getaway vehicle. Finally, there was evidence that the crime was premeditated, as witnesses said the occupants were changing clothes.
The court then addressed the defendant’s contention that the warrant was not limited in scope. Here, the search warrant permitted the officers to search every area and all cell phone data. If the court determines that the Commonwealth sought to exploit an overbroad warrant, the proper remedy is partial suppression. In this case, the court remarked that the record did not indicate the dates of the Commonwealth’s evidence. Therefore, the lower court must determine whether the evidence would have fallen with a reasonable temporal limit.
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