In Sharply Divided Decision, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Constitutionality of iPhone Search

In a 4-3 decision today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld a police department’s search of a defendant’s iPhone, concluding that the warrant issued upon a proper showing of probable cause and the search did not exceed the scope of the warrant.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Dorelas

On July 3, 2011, Boston police officers were investigating a shooting in Hyde Park.  The officers learned two men, one of whom became the defendant, had sustained gunshot wounds.  The defendant was not on the scene when the police arrived but witnesses described the distinctive jacket he was wearing and pointed the officers in the direction in which he had fled.  The officers found the defendant and his friend nearby.  The friend told the police the defendant had been arguing with someone on his iPhone before being involved in the gunfight.  The defendant’s brother reported to the police that the defendant said people were sending him threatening text messages.  The defendant’s cousin told the police the defendant had been receiving telephone threats because he owed money to various individuals.  Based on this information, the police applied for, and obtained, a warrant to search the contents of the defendant’s iPhone.  The warrant authorized the police to search for, among other things, the defendant’s contact list, text messages, email messages, call history, and photographs.  In executing the search, the police found pictures of the defendant wearing the  same green jacket and holding a gun.  The defendant was charged with a number of firearm offenses, including carrying a loaded gun.  He filed a motion to suppress the photographs that had been retrieved from his phone.  A superior court judge denied his motion and, following his convictions, the defendant appealed.

The defendant argued that while there was probable cause to believe his text messages would contain relevant evidence, the same was not true regarding the file on his phone that contained photographs.  Four justices disagreed.  The majority opinion concluded communications, including threats, can come in many forms including photographic.  It was reasonable, therefore, for the magistrate who issued the warrant to believe the photographs on the defendant’s phone could have included the threats being received by the defendant (that were described to the police by the defendant’s brother).

The dissent, joined by three justices, argued the affidavit in support of the search warrant did not establish probable cause that evidence related to the shooting would be discovered in the defendant’s iPhone’s photograph file.  Instead, the warrant should have permitted the police to search the defendant’s phone only for text messages and any photographs that had been attached to those text messages (which would preclude a general search of the separate photograph file).  The dissent pointed out that the photographs of the defendant in the green jacket and in possession of a gun were received, taken, or stored long before the shooting.  There were two criticisms of the Court’s decision leveled by the dissent: first, that the warrant did not state with particularity which files could be searched on the iPhone; and second, the police exceeded the scope of the warrant by looking in files that would not have held communications related to the shooting.

Notwithstanding the closeness of the SJC’s vote in this case, the Court ruled the photographs seized from the defendant’s phone were properly admitted at the defendant’s trial.  Search and seizure issues related to smartphones will be litigated for years to come, as appellate courts grapple with technology’s incredible new ways to communicate and store information.