Civil liberties lawyer applauds Supreme Court ruling on cellphone data; implication for pending cases uncertain



Last modified: Thursday, July 03, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — The Supreme Court ruling Wednesday requiring warrants before information is seized from mobile devices was applauded by a local civil liberties lawyer, while two defense lawyers said it is unclear whether it can be applied retroactively to current cases.

In a ruling that potentially affects any American with a cellphone or smartphone, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled police cannot collect data from those devices without a warrant.

William C. Newman, director of the Western Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said a unanimous decision with an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts adds a great deal of weight to the ruling.

“There’s no more emphatic statement that can happen in American law,” Newman said Wednesday. “It’s a very telling judgment from the court.”

Newman said the court essentially ruled that data stored on a person’s mobile device are no different from items such as personal papers, bank records and photos that require a warrant before they can be seized.

“The government is now obligated to get a warrant to get that information of evidence of a crime in the phone,” Newman said.

Newman said the ruling does not prevent police from taking physical possession of a mobile device belonging to someone who is under arrest — it only prohibits authorities from seizing the information on it without establishing probable cause and obtaining a warrant.

Northampton defense attorney David Hoose said Wednesday it is not completely clear how the ruling will affect cases in progress where cellphone data were seized without a warrant.

One of Hoose’s clients, Cara Lee Rintala, is accused of killing her wife, Annamarie Cochrane Rintala, in their Granby home in 2010. Rintala faces a third murder trial after two previous prosecutions were declared mistrials when juries reported they could not reach a verdict. Some of the state’s evidence at her two previous trials resulted from information obtained from her cellphone, including text and voice messages.

Hoose said, in general, Supreme Court decisions affect pending open cases, although he is not certain how it might be applied to Rintala’s prosecution.

First Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Steven Gagne, who prosecuted both of Rintala’s trials, said the ruling should not alter the way his office does its business when dealing with data obtained from mobile devices. Gagne added that a warrant was obtained before collecting information from Rintala’s phone.

Gagne said it’s been the practice of the district attorney’s office to ask local police to obtain warrants or the owner’s consent before collecting phone and mobile data.

Easthampton defense attorney Alfred Chamberland represents Adam Liccardi who, along with three other co-defendants, faces multiple charges of aggravated rape in connection with an alleged attack at the University of Massachusetts in 2012.

Chamberland said the phones of all four men were seized by police and data collected from them, and it is unclear if a warrant was obtained.

He said it does not appear the ruling allows for reopening old cases, but a defendant may be able to file new motions to suppress improperly obtained digital evidence in cases that are still pending.

The decision to do that may also be largely tactical, Chamberland said. In Liccardi’s case, there may be information collected from his phone that helps his case, Chamberland added.

Much information stored

Newman noted that people carry a staggering amount of information about themselves on their mobile devices.

A cellphone with sufficient memory can potentially store millions of pages of text or hundreds of photos and videos, Newman said.

In addition, there are millions of applications available for those devices, with the average user installing about 33 of them.

When looked at collectively, those applications and the data they automatically collect can form a “revealing montage” of a person’s life, said Newman.

Applications can reveal political leanings, tracking of medical symptoms, hobbies, what someone has purchased or sold and many other facets of people’s lives, he said.

The government’s argument that digital data need to be collected as quickly as possible — at the expense of a warrant — to prevent the information from being destroyed or remotely wiped “makes no sense,” he said.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that advances in technology have enabled law enforcement officials to contact judges and have their warrant applications approved via email in as little as 15 minutes.

Newman said the concerns about data on a suspect’s phone being remotely “wiped” are neutralized by simply turning off the phone or removing its battery.

Newman said in the absence of Wednesday’s ruling, the possibility existed of police arresting people simply to gain access to their cellphone data.

“This keeps us safe from that horrifying result,” he said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.


 


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