Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules an 85-Day Delay in Obtaining Warrant to Search Cell Phone Content was Reasonable

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled that the police did not act unreasonably in waiting 85 days to obtain a warrant to search a defendant’s cell phones when the phones were already being held by the police pending trial.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Arthur.

On December 15, 2015, the defendant and his two accomplices allegedly attacked a home on Morse Street in Dorchester.  Boston police officers were in the area at the time of the attack and observed much of the defendant’s (and his accomplices’) conduct.  During the late afternoon, the defendant drove his car to a street that ran parallel to Morse Street.  His accomplices drove together and arrived at the same street as the defendant at the same time.  The cops watched as the defendant’s accomplices got out of their car and armed themselves with a gun, before walking toward the Morse Street house.  Meanwhile, the defendant got out of his car and began looking through yards toward Morse Street as if he was expecting something to happen.  Within a short period of time, shots were fired on Morse Street and the defendant’s accomplices were seen running away.  One of the accomplices was holding a gun, which he threw away before getting into the passenger’s seat of the defendant’s car.  The defendant was unable to drive away, however, because the police had arrived and detained them.  A subsequent police investigation established that multiple bullets were fired into the subject home on Morse Street, but nobody was injured.  Cops on the scene saw two cell phones on the front seats of the defendant’s car and three more cell phones in the front passenger compartment of the accomplices’ car.  Officers impounded both cars and three days later obtained a warrant to search the cars and seize the phones.  Pursuant to the warrant, the phones were seized with the expectation they would be held as evidence until the trial date.  Eighty five days later, the police obtained a second warrant that allowed them to look at the content of the phones.  The defendant was charged with, among other crimes, armed assault with intent to murder.  The defendant moved to suppress the content of the phones, arguing that the police had unreasonably delayed in seeking the second warrant.  A Suffolk Superior Court judge agreed and suppressed the material that was discovered on the defendant’s phones.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court reversed.

The United States Supreme Court decided in 2014 that police officers cannot search the content of arrestees’ cell phones without first obtaining a warrant.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that the police must act “diligently” in obtaining a warrant to search an item in police custody.  In this case, the Appeals Court concluded police officers acted diligently in obtaining the first warrant (three days after the alleged crime) that allowed them to take possession of the cell phones.  Because the phones were going to be held by the cops until the defendant’s trial, it also was not unreasonable for them to wait 85 days to apply for a warrant to examine the content of the phones.  Essentially, because the defendant wasn’t going to get his phones back anyway, it didn’t matter that the cops waited nearly three months before obtaining a warrant to search them.

The case will now return to Suffolk Superior Court where the Commonwealth will be permitted to use any information found on the phones to prosecute the defendant.