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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rejects Fall River Defendant’s Claim that His Cell Phone Records Were Unlawfully Obtained

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today upheld the guilty verdicts against a man who was convicted of a brutal Fall River assault based, in part, on his cell phone records that were obtained by the police without a warrant.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Chamberlin.

The defendant was convicted of masked armed robbery, kidnapping, and armed assault with intent to murder following his participation in an attack against the owner of a Fall River real estate agency in 2007.  The victim was held up at gunpoint in his office by three masked men.  The men ordered the victim to open up his safe.  When he refused to do so, one of the men shot the victim in the ear.  The victim played dead and the three attackers fled.  The victim then called for help and was taken to a hospital.  He told a Fall River detective the following day that he recognized the voice of one of the assailants as a man named Marco who had been calling him to request information about various real estate properties.  Following the attack, the victim had received hang-up calls at his home and business.  The victim provided the detective with Marco’s phone number, which turned out to belong to the defendant.  The detective contacted the defendant’s cell phone provider and requested information related to his account.  While the detective told the provider why he wanted the information, he did not serve the provider with an administrative subpoena until after the records had been produced.  The records provided incriminating information that was used against the defendant at his trial.

The defendant had filed a motion to suppress the phone records when his case was pending in the trial court.  The defendant argued the detective had not complied with a Massachusetts statute requiring an administrative subpoena to be served in order for a police department to obtain phone records from a defendant’s provider.  There is no dispute that the detective did not abide by the Massachusetts statute.  However, a superior court judge concluded that because the detective’s request was in compliance with federal law, the phone records would be admissible at trial.  Following his convictions, the defendant appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed.

In 1966, the United States Congress enacted the Federal Stored Communications Act, which created a framework by which law enforcement officers could obtain phone records.  The law stated that a phone provider could only produce records to the government voluntarily (that is, without a warrant) in limited circumstances.  One of the limited circumstances is when the provider believes the records must be disclosed without delay in order to prevent an emergency involving the possibility of death or a serious injury to any person.  In this case, given the hang-up calls being received by the victim following the attack, the government satisfied the public danger exception to the federal law.  The question for the Supreme Judicial Court, therefore, was whether the detective’s conduct, which was allowed by federal law but arguably prohibited by Massachusetts law, should result in the suppression of the evidence.  The Court considered the language of the Massachusetts statute and pointed out it said a law enforcement officer may seek legal process to obtain phone records.  Use of the word “may” (instead of “shall”) indicated that the detective was entitled to seek an alternative way to obtain the records (in this case by using the federal statute as a guide).  Therefore, while the detective’s actions did not comply with Massachusetts law, a federal statute allowed the evidence to be used against the defendant.

Law enforcement officers almost always attempt to obtain cell phone records of individuals under investigation for committing serious crimes.  If you are charged with a crime and the prosecutor wants to use your cell phone records against you in court, you should immediately consult a criminal defense attorney to explore your options.

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