The High Court in Massachusetts Entertains Oral Argument in Cell Phone Search Cases

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.

The police may seize the cell phone pursuant to a lawful arrest, but once they have custody of the defendant and the evidence, the rationale of officer safety and evidence preservation is no longer valid.The prosecution argued in its brief that the search of the call log on the cell phone was a minimally intrusive warrantless search incident to a lawful arrest and was therefore a proper investigative procedure by the police at booking.

Attorney Murphy countered that since the defendant and the cell phone were both in the custody of the police at the police station there was absolutely no opportunity for the defendant to destroy evidence on the phone and it would have been minimally intrusive to uphold the warrant requirement, especially where the prosecutor argued that the phone contained potential evidence of a crime. Attorney Murphy countered that it is more prudent to have a neutral and detached magistrate consider the affidavit from a police officer applying for a warrant rather than have that same officer determining the scope of the search they want to engage in since police officers are highly trained and motivated by the desire to investigate crime and search for any evidence of violation of the law.

Attorney Murphy argued that the reality is that most information stored on a cell phone will remain there long enough for a warrant to be secured. Cell phones should be outside the scope of the search incident to arrest exception to the constitutional warrant requirement because of their capacity for storing vast quantities of highly personal data. If courts permit police rummaging and unlimited exploration of personal cell phone data they are in fact permitting the government to engage in an unwarranted investigation of a cell phone user’s life and personal habits. This warrantless privacy invasion should not be justified by officer safety and evidence preservation. Our constitutional protections should always win over the need for expediency or police convenience in such circumstances.

The Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy has nearly 20 years of experience aggressively defending the rights of ordinary people accused of crimes throughout the courts in Massachusetts and he will go to great lengths to defendant against overly aggressive and unlawful police investigative procedures. If you or a loved one has been accused of a violation of Massachusetts drug laws, you need an experienced and determined legal advocate on your side. Contact the Law Office of Attorney Patrick Murphy today at any time for a free and confidential legal consultation. As a dedicated criminal defense lawyer, Patrick Murphy is available 24/7 at 617-367-0450 and you may also email him directly by quickly filling out the contacts tab on the website.

Contact Information