Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

Massachusetts Supreme Court Extends Cell Phone Privacy Rights

In April 2019, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which is the highest court in the state, ruled that law enforcement’s access to real time cell phone data constitutes an intrusion on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. As a result of the decision, law enforcement in Massachusetts is now required to obtain a warrant before accessing this data provided that there are no exigent circumstances.

How the Case Arose

The case, Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Almonor, involved law enforcement “pinging” the cell phone of a person suspected of murder to access location data. This information was ultimately used to pinpoint the suspect’s location. In support of this action, the state argued that it was able to obtain cell phone location data without a warrant provided the information was less than six hours old.

A trial court, however, did not agree with the state, and an appeal resulted. The opposing side responded by filing an amicus brief that asked the appellate court to recognize the decision of United States v. Carpenter, in which the United States Supreme Court held that people have a constitutional right to privacy concerning their physical movement. Because location data produced by a cell phone is capable of revealing a person’s every movement, law enforcement must obtain a warrant to access this information.

The Court’s Decision in Almonor

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ultimately held that manipulating a person’s phone to track an individual’s location constitutes an intrusion. In arriving at its decision, the court acknowledged that cell phone use is common in society and that a phone’s location is often synonymous with a person’s location. The court noted that society’s expectation is that law enforcement is not able to freely identify a person’s location. While the defendant raised both federal and state arguments, the court’s ultimate decision rested on Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

What the Decision Means for Others

There are a number of other cell phone privacy cases in Massachusetts and the rest of the country that will likely be influenced by this decision. Because the court in this case held that accessing this location data is an unreasonable search, cell phone users can expect to have their privacy rights respected.

What Happens When Law Enforcement Performs an Unlawful Cell Phone Search

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that individuals have a right to be protected from unlawful searches and seizures. If a law enforcement officer violates your Fourth Amendment rights by performing an unlawful cell phone search, courts of law are able to exclude any improperly obtained evidence.

After blocking illegally obtained evidence, prosecution often experiences difficulty in satisfying all of the elements of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution is not able to satisfy every element of an offense, it is likely that a court will dismiss the charge.

Speak with an Experienced Massachusetts Criminal Defense Attorney

No matter the criminal offense with which you are charged, it is important to assert your cell phone privacy rights. Contact criminal defense attorney Edward Molari today to schedule a free initial consultation.