Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Says Photos on Digital Camera Cannot Be Viewed by Police Without a Warrant

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday reversed a defendant’s gun conviction, ruling the police had improperly viewed the photographs stored on a digital camera found in his backpack that led to the charge.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Mauricio.

In May of 2014, a Taunton police officer learned that two “suspicious” people were seen running from a residence.  The cop found the two people, one of whom was the defendant, nearby.  The defendant was wearing a backpack and the cop searched it, finding hypodermic needles and other items, including a digital camera.  After the defendant was identified by the individual who initially called the police, he was arrested and transported to the police station.  A Taunton detective viewed the items found in the defendant’s backpack.  The detective thought the camera might be stolen, so she looked at its stored pictures to see if they contained hints about the identity of the true owner.  The detective found a photograph of the defendant posing with guns that were later determined to have been recently stolen from another Taunton resident.  The defendant was charged with multiple crimes, including illegally carrying a firearm.  He filed a motion to suppress any evidence gleaned from the search of the photos on the camera, which was denied by a district court judge.  After he was convicted by a jury, the defendant appealed and argued, in part, his motion to suppress should have been allowed.  The SJC agreed and reversed the gun conviction.

The Commonwealth argued the search of the camera was proper under two legal theories.  First, the Commonwealth said the police were justified in looking at the photos in the camera because it was a search incident to arrest.  When police officers make an arrest, they are entitled to search the defendant and his belongings to: (1) prevent the destruction of evidence; and (2) remove any weapons the arrestee might possess.  The SJC ruled here that the officers’ search of the pictures on the digital camera did not accomplish either of these goals.  The opinion is consistent with a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which it was determined the police could not search the contents of an arrestee’s cell phone incident to arrest.  If the police had probable cause to believe there would be evidence of a crime contained in the pictures on the camera, they could apply for a warrant to search its contents.  The SJC pointed out that once the camera was in the custody of the police in this case, there was “ample opportunity” for the cops to apply for a search warrant.

The Commonwealth next argued the detective was conducting an inventory of the defendant’s property, which is permissible without a warrant.  The SJC shot down this argument as well.  An inventory search is designed to allow the cops to keep track of an arrestee’s property (and to protect the cops from future allegations that an arrestee’s property has been stolen).  An inventory search cannot, however, be used to investigate a crime.  The SJC held the search in this case was investigatory in nature, and therefore the inventory exception to the warrant requirement did not apply.

The defendant’s case was remanded back to the trial court, where the gun charge will need to be dismissed in light of the SJC’s ruling.  If you have been charged with a crime after the police have searched you or your belongings, you should immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to determine whether a motion to suppress should be filed.