The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled Boston police officers acted properly in obtaining the cell site location information (CSLI) for the defendant’s phone in order to locate her and remove a gun from the trunk of her car. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Raspberry.
In April of 2015, the Boston Police Department was working on a wiretap case with federal law enforcement authorities. The target of the wiretap, which was authorized by a federal judge, was a man name Mike Coke. One afternoon, an officer was monitoring a call between Coke and a woman later identified as the defendant. The defendant, who sounded angry and emotional, accused her boyfriend of taking her money and said she was going to get a gun and shoot him. The police were quickly able to identify both the defendant and the target of her rage – a man named Alvin Dorsey. Within 15 minutes, the police contacted AT&T (the defendant’s cell phone service provider) to report the defendant had made a threat to shoot another person. The cops asked AT&T to immediately provide the location of the defendant’s cell phone (by tracking its movements to cell towers), which would allow officers to find the defendant and possibly prevent a shooting. AT&T agreed to cooperate and the cops were able to follow the defendant’s cell phone from Braintree through Dorchester and finally into Roxbury. The police had learned that Alvin Dorsey’s girlfriend lived in a Roxbury housing project. Approximately two hours after the initial call, the cops listened to a second conversation between the defendant and Coke. The defendant said she was sitting in front of Alvin Dorsey’s girlfriend’s house and she was planning to shoot them both in the face. At that point, Boston police officers located the defendant sitting in her car. The cops confronted her and upon learning she did not have a driver’s license, they removed her from the vehicle and arrested her. The defendant had a stun gun in her purse and a loaded gun in the trunk of her car. She was charged with multiple crimes, including carrying a firearm without a license. She filed a motion to suppress, arguing the police had improperly obtained her cell phone location records and had unlawfully searched her trunk. A Boston Municipal Court judge denied her motion and she appealed. The Appeals Court agreed the motion to suppress had been properly denied.
The Court first concluded that the police lawfully obtained the cell phone records under the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement. If police officers reasonably believe an emergency exists and lives are in danger, they may access evidence that would ordinarily require securing a warrant ahead of time. The Court concluded the emergency aid exception applied to the officers’ conduct in this case. It was reasonable for the police to have grave concerns that the defendant was going to imminently cause serious bodily harm by shooting Dorsey and his girlfriend. In order to prevent the violence, the cops needed to know where the defendant was, and it was therefore appropriate to obtain her cell phone records. The search of the trunk was likewise constitutional based on the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. If the police have probable cause to believe contraband will be found in a car parked on a public street (and the car is capable of being moved), officers may search the car without a warrant to recover the contraband. In this case, there was probable cause to believe the defendant possessed a gun in her car and the search was therefore constitutional.