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Massachusetts high court rules warrant needed for cell phone data search

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts [official website] on Tuesday held [opinion, PDF] that law enforcement must typically obtain a warrant before using a criminal suspect's cell phone data to track his movements. Plaintiff in the case, Shabazz Augustine, was a suspect in the 2004 homicide of his girlfriend. Augustine was arrested after police obtained his cell phone records from Sprint by use of a federal law that only requires information to be relevant to an investigation [Boston Globe report], as opposed to a search warrant, which requires a judge to find probable cause regarding the subject's involvement in committing a crime. The phone records were then used to pinpoint Augustine's location at the time of the murder. The court held that obtaining Augustine's cell phone records without an actual warrant violated Article 14 of the Massachusetts Constitution, pertaining to unreasonable search and seizures. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU) [advocacy website] represented Augustine in this case. ACLU Massachusetts legal director Matthew Segal stated regarding the case, "Today's ruling is an enormous victory for privacy in the Commonwealth, and it means that Massachusetts is taking an important lead in dealing with the privacy implications of the digital age. Under this ruling, turning on a cell phone does not justify warrantless local and state surveillance of when, where and how you use it." The case is now on remand to determine if prosecutors would have been able to meet the standard for obtaining a search warrant for the cell phone records.

The governmental use of private individuals' cellular phone data has been cause of substantial controversy in recent months. The US Supreme Court [official website] in January granted review [JURIST report] over the issue of police authority to search the contents of an arrested individual's cell phone. The court accepted two cases on the matter to review. The first, Riley v. California [SCOTUSblog backgrounder], is a state court case that involves a challenge to searching an arrested individual without a warrant. After being arrested, police examined Riley's cell phone, which was described as more of a hand-held computer. In the federal case, United States v. Wurie [SCOTUSblog backgrounder], the court will examine a similar fact pattern, but the cell phone was an ordinary flip-phone. In July the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled [JURIST report] that warrants were not required to track cell phones. In the same month the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] that police must obtain search warrants before obtaining tracking information from cell phone providers, marking the first time a state supreme court has recognized a Fourth Amendment protection for cell phone location data. In May the Florida Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] that police need a warrant to search a defendant's cell phone at the time of arrest.

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