Massachusetts supreme court says cops should have gotten warrant before obtaining cell phone location data

Court takes a “different approach” with respect to one’s expectation of privacy

After defendant’s girlfriend was murdered in 2004, the police got a “D order” (an order authorized under 18 U.S.C. 2703(d)) from a state court to compel Sprint to turn over historical cell site location information (“CSLI”) showing where defendant placed telephone calls around the time of the girlfriend’s murder. Importantly, the government did not get a warrant for this information. After the government indicted defendant seven years later, he moved to suppress the CSLI evidence arguing a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court granted the motion to suppress, and the government sought review with the Massachusetts supreme court. That court agreed, holding that a search warrant based on probable cause was required.

The government invoked the third party doctrine, arguing that no search in the constitutional sense occurred because CSLI was a business record of the defendant’s cellular service provider, a private third party. According to the government, the defendant could thus have no expectation of privacy in location information — i.e., information about the his location when using the cell phone — that he voluntarily revealed.

The court concluded that although the CSLI at issue was a business record of the defendant’s cellular service provider, he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in it, and in the circumstances of this case — where the CSLI obtained covered a two-week period — the warrant requirement of the Massachusetts constitution applied. The court made a qualitative distinction in cell phone location records to reach its conclusion:

No cellular telephone user . . . voluntarily conveys CSLI to his or her cellular service provider in the sense that he or she first identifies a discrete item of information or data point like a telephone number (or a check or deposit slip…) … In sum, even though CSLI is business information belonging to and existing in the records of a private cellular service provider, it is substantively different from the types of information and records contemplated by [the Supreme Court’s seminal third-party doctrine cases]. These differences lead us to conclude that for purposes of considering the application of [the Massachusetts constitution] in this case, it would be inappropriate to apply the third-party doctrine to CSLI.

To get to this conclusion, the court avoided the question of whether obtaining the records constituted a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, but focused instead on the third party doctrine (and the expectation of privacy one has in information stored on a third party system) in relation to the Massachusetts constitution.

In a sense, though, the court gave the government another bite at the apple. It remanded the case to the trial court where the government could seek to establish that the affidavit submitted in support of its application for an order under 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d) demonstrated probable cause for the CSLI records at issue.

Commonwealth v. Augustine, — N.E.3d —, Mass. , 2014 WL 563258 (Mass. February 18, 2014)

Is the future a trade between convenience and privacy?

This TechCrunch piece talks about how (predictably) Google wants to build the “ultimate personal assistant.” With Google’s collecting user preferences cross-platform and applying algorithms to ascertain intentions, getting around in the world, purchasing things, and interacting with others could get a lot easier.

But at what cost? The success of any platform that becomes a personal assistant in the cloud would depend entirely on the collection of vast amounts of information about the individual. And since Google makes its fortunes on advertising, there is no reason to be confident that the information gathered will not be put to uses other than adding conveniences to the user’s life. Simply stated, the platform is privacy-destroying.

What if one wants to opt-out of this utopically convenient future? Might such a person be unfairly disadvantaged by, for example, choosing to undertake tasks the “old fashioned” way, unassisted by the privacy eviscerating tools? This points to larger questions about augmented reality. As a society, will we implement regulations to level the playing field among those who are not augmented versus those who are? Questions of social justice in the future may take a different tone.

Guy faces lawsuit for using another man’s Facebook pics to send sexually explicit communications to undercover cops

Defendant emailed three pictures, thinking he was communicating with two 14-year-old girls. But he was actually communicating with a police detective. And the pictures were not of defendant, but of plaintiff — a cop in a neighboring community. The pictures were not sexually explicit, but the accompanying communications were. Defendant had copied them from plaintiff’s Facebook page.

Plaintiff and his wife sued defendant under a number of tort theories. Defendant moved to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims for false light publicity and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court denied the motion.

It found that the false light in which defendant placed plaintiff through his conduct would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and that defendant had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the identity of the person in the photo, and the false light into which the plaintiff would be placed.

As for the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, the court found that: (1) defendant intended to inflict emotional distress or that he knew or should have known that emotional distress was the likely result of his conduct; (2) that the conduct was extreme and outrageous; (3) that the conduct was the cause of plaintiff’s distress; and (4) that the emotional distress sustained by the plaintiff was severe.

Defendant argued that his conduct was not extreme and outrageous. The court addressed that argument by noting that:

[Defendant] cannot do that with a straight face. The test is whether “the recitation of the facts to an average member of the community would arouse his resentment against the actor and lead him to exclaim, Outrageous!” . . . This is such a case.

Plaintiff’s wife’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim survived as well. This was not, as defendant argued, an allegation of bystander emotional distress, such as that of a witness to an automobile accident. Defendant’s conduct implied that plaintiff was a sexual predator. This would naturally reflect on his spouse and cause her great personal embarrassment and natural concern for her own personal health quite apart from the distress she may have experienced from observing her husband’s own travail.

Dzamko v. Dossantos, 2013 WL 5969531 (Conn.Super. October 23, 2013)

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