Massachusetts Court Discusses Tower Dumps and Investigators’ Use of Cell Phone Data in Recent Robbery Case

In a recent case involving investigators’ use of individuals’ cell phone data, a Massachusetts court determined that law enforcement infringed on the defendant’s privacy rights by using his cell phone provider’s data without first asking his permission. The court suppressed part of the incriminating evidence that had been presented against the defendant, reminding investigators that they have to have probable cause before attempting to obtain cell phone data when looking for suspects of a crime.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, throughout September and October of 2018, clerks at six stores in the Boston area were robbed at gunpoint by an unidentified suspect. On a separate occasion in the same area, a suspect shot and killed a store clerk during an attempted robbery. There were several commonalities between the incidents, including that the stores were convenience of gasoline stores, the perpetrator in all of the incidents had the same build, and the robber used similar tactics in each offense.

Investigators worked with the FBI to identify a suspect. They looked at data from “tower dumps,” which are data sets including an enormous amount of cell phone location information from towers in a given area. The investigators obtained two warrants: one relating to three of the robberies, the second relating to three of the other robberies. Each warrant required cell phone providers to hand over information about where their customers were located on the day and time of each robbery.

Investigators received information on over 50,000 telephone numbers. From this data, they looked at which individuals were at all of the relevant locations at all of the relevant times. Through this process, they identified the defendant in this case.

The Decision

The defendant was indicted on several charges: murder in the first degree, attempted masked armed robbery, five counts of masked armed robbery, and six counts of unlawful possession of a firearm. He immediately filed a motion to suppress all of the evidence obtained from these tower dumps, arguing the data was an unconstitutional invasion of his privacy.

The lower court denied the motion to suppress, and the defendant appealed. On appeal, he again argued that the data that investigators obtained was personal – according to the defendant, they had no right to know where he was at any given moment in time.

The court agreed with the defendant that the tower dumps produced highly personal and otherwise unknowable details of the defendant’s life, thus intruding upon his expectation of privacy. Considering each individual warrant separately, the court noticed that the first warrant did not include any specific information about the perpetrator of the offenses. The warrant also failed to include any reasons as to why cell phone data would be important in figuring out who committed the crimes. Because of this lack of particularity, the court determined that the first warrant was unreasonably obtained, and the information received from the first warrant should be suppressed.

The second warrant, however, described specific details about the perpetrator’s shoes, mask, jacket, and getaway driver. Given the fact that it seemed as though the perpetrator had to communicate with his getaway driver at the time of the offenses, the investigators did have sufficient reason to think that cell phone data would reveal important clues as to who committed the crimes. Thus, said the court, the second warrant was reasonably obtained. The data from this warrant was fine for prosecutors to use against the defendant in court.

Lastly, the court ruled that any investigator hoping to review data from tower dumps must obtain a warrant from a judge before doing so. Before issuing the requested warrant, the judge is required to provide some sort of protocol for the investigators’ use of the data in order to make sure that the investigator does not unreasonably infringe on an individual’s right to privacy.

Have You Been Targeted by Law Enforcement’s Investigatory Practices in Massachusetts?

If you have found yourself being investigated by law enforcement in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, give us a call at the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy. Regardless of whether you face robbery charges, gun charges, drug offenses or any other serious misdemeanor or felony, we can help you develop a compelling defense. For a free consultation, call us at 617-367-0450.


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