On September 6, 2012, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the Commonwealth’s highest court, heard legal arguments on both sides of the issue of whether or not a judge should suppress the evidence seized from a defendant’s cellular telephone in circumstances where the phone was seized immediately from the defendant during a lawful arrest but searched about an hour later during the booking process at the police station without a search warrant.
The issue is one of first impression in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and one that other state courts and federal district courts have struggled with to find the proper balance between constitutionally protected privacy rights to significant information stored on a cell phone and allowing law enforcement to continue to do their jobs to further investigate crime. Neither the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts nor the Massachusetts Appeals Court have addressed the issue of whether or not a police officer is permitted to perform a warrantless search of a defendant’s cell phone content after the defendant has been arrested and the pending decision will have a significant impact on the search and seizure law in Massachusetts.
Attorney Patrick J. Murphy of the Boston based Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy presented oral argument before the seven justices of the Supreme Judicial Court on behalf of the Appellant, while Attorney Zachary Hillman presented the prosecution’s responsive argument.
Attorney Murphy stressed to the high court that the legal analysis must first begin by recognizing that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article XIV of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights guarantees all people protection from unreasonable searches of their possessions and any warrantless search by the police is per se unreasonable and evidence gained therefrom should be suppressed. Additionally, Attorney Murphy argued that although there is a search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement, that exception only applies in circumstances where the officers are searching for weapons or in a situation where there is a danger of the loss or destruction of evidence.