Massachusetts law about cell phone searches

Cases on the search of cell phones or cell phone location information.

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Table of Contents

General information

Cell phone privacy, ACLU.
Multimedia resources outlining current trends across the United States regarding cell phone privacy.

Cellphone searches after arrest, Nolo.
An overview of the law on police officers searching cellphones, including the issue of forcing people to unlock their devices and an overview of Riley v. California.

Do the police need a warrant to track you with your cell phone?, Nolo.
Summarizes Carpenter v. United States and common definitions that come up in cases addressing cell phone location data.

Cell phone location information

Carpenter v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 2206 (2018)
"An individual maintains a legitimate expectation of privacy, for Fourth Amendment purposes, in the record of his physical movements as captured through CSLI." A warrant is required to obtain a suspect's historical cell phone location information. 

An "order issued under § 2703(d) of the [Stored Communications] Act, [18 U.S.C.S. § 2703(d)] is not a permissible mechanism for accessing historical cell-site records."

Before compelling a wireless carrier to turn over a subscriber’s cell-site location information, the government’s obligation is a familiar one: get a warrant.

The evolution of Massachusetts Court’s decisions regarding a defendant’s cell phone location data

Comm. v. Arrington, 493 Mass. 478 (2024)
The SJC addresses the inclusion of FLH (frequent location history) with or without the accompaniment of expert testimony. The decision notes that in this particular case the Commonwealth," had not met its burden of showing that the proffered expert testimony established the reliability of the FLH date in this case." But, in a concurring opinion, the court states the caveat that "as more becomes known about FLH data, a party attempting to prove gatekeeper reliability may cure many, if not all, of the Commonwealth’s deficiencies... In sum, I write separately to emphasize that today’s ruling does not dictate the result at a Daubert-Lanigan hearing in another case based upon either existing or evolving technology."

Comm. v. Perry, 489 Mass. 436 (2022) 
In Comm. v. Perry the SJC continues to discuss the balance between public safety and personal privacy in cases involving requests for cell site location information (CSLI), and "tower dumps" (collection of data on a multitude of individuals over multiple days.) The SJC decided "Henceforth, before acquiring and analyzing a series of tower dumps, the Commonwealth must obtain a warrant from a judge. Before issuing the requested warrant, the judge must ensure that it provides a protocol for the disposal of any data that falls outside the scope of the search."

Comm. v. Almonor, 482 Mass. 35 (2019)
Real-time "pinging" of a cell phone location by a service provider at the request of police is a search under Article 14 of the Mass. Constitution, and so normally will require a warrant and "by causing the defendant's cell phone to reveal its real-time location, the Commonwealth intruded on the defendant's reasonable expectation of privacy in the real-time location of his cell phone."

Comm. v. Raspberry, 93 Mass.App.Ct. 633 (2018)
"The judge ruled that the CSLI search was justified under the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement, because the police had a 'good faith, reasonable belief that there was a serious and imminent threat to human life'."

Comm. v. Estabrook, 472 Mass. 852 (2015)
A request for historical CSLI [cellular site location information] for a period covering six hours or less does not require a search warrant.

Comm. v. Augustine, 467 Mass. 230 (2014)
A warrant is generally required for historical cell site location information (CSLI) CSLI [cellular site location information].

Decisions regarding the cell phone location data of others

Comm. v. Fredericq, 482 Mass. 70 (2019)
Defendant in a car had automatic standing to challenge the warrantless search of another's cell phone location because police knew that he was in car with murder suspect whose movements were being tracked through CSLI of another person's cell phone for more than six days.

Comm. v. Lugo, 482 Mass. 94 (2019)
Defendant did not have standing to challenge the search of another person's cell phone location information where police did not know they were together, and "the period of the search - less than two hours - was not sufficiently significant to allow the defendant standing." 

Cell phone data

Riley v. California, 573 US 373 (2014)
Warrantless search of cell phone incident to arrest is unconstitutional.

"The police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested." -- Riley v. California

Recent Massachusetts Court’s decisions regarding cell phone data

Com. v. Carrasquillo, 489 Mass. 107 (2022)
"No bright-line test applies in determining whether a defendant has a reasonable expectation of privacy in content posted to a social media account having a designated 'private' setting; each case must be resolved by carefully considering the totality of circumstances."

Com. v. Henley, 488 Mass. 95 (2021)
"Although general or exploratory searches are not permitted, requiring a search warrant application to identify specific locations or files on a cell phone to be searched places an unrealistic burden on law enforcement and restricts legitimate search objectives, given the storage capacity and file structure of most cell phones."

Com. v. Snow, 486 Mass. 582 (2021)
Provides additional guidance on the proper scope of cell phone search warrants, including particularity and time restrictions.

Com. v. Feliz, 486 Mass. 510 (2020)
Given the defendant's use of devices to share child pornography over the Internet, a condition of probation allowing the probation department to inspect and search any electronic device was reasonably related to the Commonwealth's probationary goals. This condition only allows searches of the defendant's electronic devices for child pornography, not his home or person, and not for other subjects.

Com. v. Shipps, 97 Mass. App. Ct 32 (2020)
Constitutionality of a cell phone search by a probation officer pursuant to a condition of probation.

Contact   for Massachusetts law about cell phone searches

Last updated: February 27, 2024

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