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Police need warrant for cell location data, SJC rules

The state’s highest court ruled today that law enforcement must generally obtain a search warrant before acquiring a criminal suspect’s cell-phone data in order to track his movements.

The Supreme Judicial Court, ruling in a case with echoes of the controversy over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, said a warrant is required under the Massachusetts constitution protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

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“It’s an enormous victory for everybody in Massachusetts who cares about privacy,” said Matthew Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which represented the plaintiff in the case, Shabazz Augustine, a suspect in the 2004 homicide of his girlfriend, Julaine Jules of Malden.

Augustine was arrested after police used his cell-phone records to determine his whereabouts around the time of the killing. Investigators did not obtain a search warrant to gather the cell phone records, which would have required a judge to find probable cause the subject had committed a crime. Instead, authorities used a federal law that requires only that such files must be relevant to an investigation to get Augustine’s records from wireless carrier Sprint.

Augustine’s lawyers argued that obtaining the phone records without a full-fledged warrant violated Article 14 of the Massachusetts Constitution, which bars unreasonable searches and seizures.

In 5-2 ruling issued Tuesday, the state’s highest court agreed. The court said it was possible that if the data covered only a short period, then obtaining the records under a federal law—the Stored Communications Act—without a search warrant might be acceptable. But it said it was clear that in Augustine’s case, in which two weeks of data was obtained, the period was too long.

“The tracking of the defendant’s movements in the urban Boston area for two weeks was more than sufficient to intrude upon the defendant’s expectation of privacy,” said the Massachusetts court opinion, written by Justice Margot Botsford.

The ruling also makes Massachusetts the latest of several US states to set stricter limits on government access to citizens’ phone records.

“In holding here that the Commonwealth generally must obtain a warrant before acquiring a person’s historical [cellphone location] records, this opinion clearly announces a new rule,” Botsford added.

The court returned the case to the Suffolk County Superior Court, which had previously thrown out the phone records as evidence. That lower court now must decide whether prosecutors could have met the standard for obtaining a search warrant for Augustine’s records anyway. If so, the records could still be used at trial.

The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office noted Tuesday that it routinely obtains a search warrant to get cell-phone data, and that no other case would likely be affected by the state court’s ruling.

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