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Massachusetts Court Holds that Police Cannot Use GPS Trackers Without a Warrant

Instead April of 2019, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an important opinion in a Massachusetts drug case discussing whether police officers can use a GPS tracking device to track the location of a suspect without first obtaining a warrant. The court held that police needed to obtain a warrant, and, by failing to do so, anything they recovered as a result of the information obtained was suppressible as “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

According to the court’s written opinion, police officers were in the process of investigating a homicide and obtained the cellular site location information (CSLI) for one of the suspect’s phones. Police suspected that the homicide was drug-related, and that there were several people involved, including the defendant. The cell phone the police tracked was registered to the defendant but used by another individual. However, the police had reason to believe that the defendant would be traveling with the user of the cell phone.

The CSLI data eventually led police to the defendant’s residence, which was a three-story building with multiple rooms available to rent. Police knocked on the door and were admitted into the home. Police eventually made their way up to the third floor, where they encountered the defendant. The police explained that they were investigating a homicide and that they believed the suspect may be in the building. They also mentioned that narcotics were involved. The defendant gave his consent for the officers to enter his room and conduct a search. During the search, the police found $2,200 in cash and two bricks of cocaine. The cocaine was located in a crawl space. The trial court ultimately granted the defendant’s motion to suppress.

The prosecution filed an appeal, arguing that the defendant did not have standing to suppress the cocaine. The appellate court disagreed, and affirmed the lower court’s decision to grant the defendant’s motion. In the process, the court made several important determinations. First, the court explained that the defendant had standing to argue the motion to suppress. Standing is a legal concept that requires a party has a stake in the outcome of a proceeding. Here, the court held that the defendant had standing because the police were tracking a vehicle in which he was a passenger. The court did not get into whether the fact that the phone was registered to the defendant was an independent basis to find that he had standing.

Next, the court held that the evidence could be suppressed even if the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy where the evidence was located. The court explained that, when it is determined that police used information gained through illegal means to locate contraband, the prosecution must be able to show that the search resulting in the discovery of the contraband was sufficiently attenuated from the illegal police conduct. Here, the court held that the prosecution failed to show that the search of the crawl space was sufficiently attenuated from the tracking of the cell phone. Thus, the court rejected the prosecution’s appeal and affirmed the lower court’s decision to grant the defendant’s motion to suppress.

Have You Been Charged with a Massachusetts Drug Crime?

If you have been arrested and charged with a Massachusetts drug crime, contact attorney Patrick J. Murphy. Attorney Murphy is a dedicated Boston criminal defense attorney with extensive experience representing those who are facing serious Massachusetts drug trafficking crimes. To learn more about how Attorney Murphy can help you defend against the crimes that you are accused of committing, call 617-367-0450 to schedule a free consultation today.