SJC RULES POLICE MAY NOT SEARCH DIGITAL CAMERA WITHOUT WARRANT

In Commonwealth v. Mauricio. after appealing the denial of a motion to suppress, the SJC reversed denial of the suppression of images retrieved by the police during a warrantless search of a digital camera that was seized from the defendant. The facts are as follows:  The  was arrested as a suspect in a breaking and entering.  After being taken to the police station, the evidence officer, Detective Treacy,  “conducted an inventory search of the defendant’s backpack.  Treacy … turned the camera on and viewed the digital images it contained in the hope of identifying its ‘true’ owner. In doing so, Treacy came across an image of [the defendant] with firearms.” This image was shared with another detective  who “had been investigating a housebreak on Plain Street in Taunton where two firearms and jewelry had been reported stolen. The other detective, suspecting that the firearms in the digital image matched the firearms stolen from the Plain Street residence, contacted the homeowner and showed him a printed photograph of … the digital image…. The homeowner confirmed that the firearms and the other items in the photograph were taken from his home during the break-in.”

I represented the defendant on the trial level.  The defendant was charged with carrying a firearm without a license and receiving stolen property with a value in excess of $250, and I filed two motions to suppress, which were denied. In the first motion, we sought to suppress the physical evidence that was seized from his backpack by the police without a warrant. The judge denied the motion on the ground that “the contents of the backpack would inevitably have been discovered during a later search incident to arrest.” In the second motion, we sought “to suppress the images discovered as the result of the warrantless search of the digital camera.” “The judge denied that motion on the ground that the viewing of the digital images was part of a valid inventory search.”

At trial, the defendant was convicted of both of the charged offenses. “On appeal, he argued that the judge wrongly denied the motion to suppress the images recovered from the warrantless search of the digital camera because,” in the defendant’s view, “the search did not fall within the purview of the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement and exceeded the scope of a valid inventory search.”

In its decision, the SJC agreed with the defendant’s argument, concluding that the search of the digital camera violated art. 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. Regarding the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement, the Court applied to this case the reasoning in Riley v. California,  “which foreclosed the application of that exception to cellular telephones,” on the ground that such “a search of digital data serves neither of the two justifications announced in Chimel v. California:   “mitigation of risk of ‘harm to officers and destruction of evidence.’” Moreover, the Court ruled “that the search of the digital camera exceeded the bounds of the inventory search exception to the warrant requirement because it was investigatory in nature.” Having concluded that the images from the digital camera had to be suppressed, the Court vacated the defendant’s conviction of carrying a firearm without a license.

 

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