Do the Police Need a Search Warrant for my Cell Phone in Massachusetts?

Search Warrants for Cell Phones in Massachusetts

Your cell phone has a lot of personal information about you. You probably have a banking app that shows your finances. You have many pictures showing you and people you care about. Your web browser shows the websites you’ve visited. Beyond that, your GPS can track where you’ve been and where you are now. That’s a lot of information. The question is, can the police access that information without your permission.

There are two sources of information from your cell phone that the police may want:

  1. Information contained in the phone itself – this is the content on your phone. That includes pictures, videos, and contact information.
  2. Information about cell phone location – this involves cell phone tracking. Police may want to find out where you are or have been. They are looking to track your location to try and put you in the area of a crime.

Can police search your phone without a warrant?

It used to be that if you were arrested, the police could search through any personal items you had on you. Such items included wallets, handbags, and papers. This was known as the Robinson Rule. Then came the invention of the cell phone. The question became, because your phone contains so much information, do the police have a right to search your phone as well.

Do police need a warrant to search your phone?

There were two important cases that asked the question, can police take your phone without a warrant. The cases involve defendants named Riley and Wurie.

Riley was stopped and ultimately arrested for driving on a suspended license. During the course of a search, guns were found in his car. His cell phone was also searched. That search revealed that he was a member of a gang and participated in a drive-by shooting. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to life in prison. But would that conviction stand?

Wurie was arrested after police saw him involved in a drug transaction. Police seized his phone which was receiving calls from a contact labeled “my house”. They traced that number to Wurie’s apartment, got a warrant, and found a significant amount of drugs and some weapons. He was convicted on several charges and sentenced to over 20 years. He appealed his conviction, and the case was taken to the Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the police had no right to search the phones of the defendants without a warrant. Since cell phones are basically little computers, the amount of personal information is enormous. Because of that, cell phones should be treated differently than other personal items found on a suspect at the time of arrest. Looking into your cell phone without a warrant is an unacceptable intrusion into your privacy. Although, there are emergency situations that may allow a warrantless search of your phone.

Cell phone location information

Police sometimes want to search your phone to find out where it’s been. This is called Cell Site Location Information (CSLI). That information is not on the phone itself. It is stored with your cellular service provider. Such information can include:

  • telephone numbers to and from that phone;
  • when the calls took place;
  • the length of the calls; and
  • the location of the nearest cell phone tower.

That information can be used to locate your cell phone at specific times.

Can the government get your cell phone location history without a warrant in Massachusetts?

There’s a case in Massachusetts where a woman went missing. Her body was found in the Charles River. Her boyfriend became a suspect. Police accessed his cell site location information. He was indicted for murder. The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that even though the information was a business record of the cell phone service provider, the defendant still had an expectation of privacy. Therefore, a warrant was needed to retrieve it.

Can the police “ping” your cell phone without a warrant in Massachusetts?

You can be located using your cell phone. Your cellular provider can “ping” your phone. This will locate you by identifying nearby cell phone towers. If the police are looking for you, they may use this technique. Police generally need a warrant to get this information, because you have an expectation of privacy as to where you are. There are, however, exceptions to this warrant requirement.

There’s a case where the police had a suspect in a murder case. It was believed he was at large and still in possession of a sawed-off shotgun. Police got the cell phone provider to ping his phone. He was located at a former girlfriend’s house where he was arrested. A search of the home also found a shotgun and a bullet-proof vest. The Court ruled that a warrant is generally needed for the pinging, because you have an expectation of privacy in that information. However, the Court also ruled that due to exigent (emergency) circumstances, a warrant in this case was not necessary.

Conclusion

Your cell phone holds a lot of information. That includes pictures, emails, and contact information for other people. Your phone can also be used to track your location. The government shouldn’t have access to it without your permission. You have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Generally, to get that information the police must first get a search warrant. There are exceptions to that rule, however, such as emergency situations. It’s important to know your rights so you can protect yourself and your privacy.

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