Massachusetts Court Disapproves of Police Officers’ “Search” of Cell Phone

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Massachusetts homicide case discussing the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence that was obtained from a cell phone that was in his pocket when he was arrested. Ultimately, the court concluded that while police officers legally seized the phone, they conducted an illegal investigatory search of the phone when they used it for “investigative purposes.”

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was arrested on suspicion of murder. On the day of his arrest, the defendant had a cell phone in his pocket. The defendant’s brother and father went to the police station to give statements to detectives. The first question the detective asked the defendant’s brother was whether he had a cell phone. The brother responded that the defendant had his phone.

The detective continued to question the brother about the phone, asking for the code to unlock it. The defendant’s brother provided the correct code, and the detective unlocked the phone. The detective then asked additional questions about the phone, including how the phone’s screen got cracked. The defendant’s brother also told detectives he got the phone new about a year before, he gave them the phone number, and told them that the defendant used the phone “all the time.” Detectives then asked the defendant’s brother for consent to search the phone, which was given. Detectives discovered a video of the defendant discussing his role in the murder.

The Court’s Opinion

The court held that the officers’ seizure of the phone was lawful. However, by using the phone for investigatory purposes before obtaining consent to search it, the court found that the officers made “impermissible investigatory use” of the phone, requiring suppression of the recovered evidence.

The court explained that police officers are allowed to conduct inventory searches when property is seized from a defendant. However, the scope of an inventory search is limited, and does include a search that is for investigative purposes. Here, the court held that the detective used the phone for investigatory purposes when he asked the defendant’s brother questions about the phone and who used it. Thus, the court held that even if the detective was initially only trying to verify who owned the phone, “the search exceeded the scope of and was inconsistent with the purposes underlying the inventory search exception to the warrant requirement.” The court agreed that the evidence contained on the phone must be suppressed.

Have You Been Arrested after Police Searched Your Phone?

If you have recently been arrested and charged with a crime after police or detectives searched your phone or computer, contact Attorney Patrick J. Murphy for assistance. Police officers must strictly comply with statutory and constitutional laws when searching electronic devices, yet officers frequently violate these laws. Attorney Murphy is an experienced criminal defense attorney who routinely handles even the most difficult and complex cases, including Massachusetts violent crimes and sexual offenses. To learn more about how Attorney Murphy can help you defend against the charges you are facing, call 617-367-0450 today.

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