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Cellphone photos deemed admissible by SJC

By: Tom Egan January 14, 2016

In a split opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court has affirmed a Superior Court judge’s decision to deny a criminal defendant’s motion to suppress photograph files seized by the police from his Apple iPhone.

A warrant authorized a search of the defendant’s iPhone for evidence of communications that would link him and another suspect to a shooting that occurred in Hyde Park. Among the photographs extracted and examined by the police were photographs depicting the defendant holding a gun and dressed in the same color jacket described by witnesses to the shooting.

“We conclude that where there was probable cause that evidence of communications relating to and linking the defendant to the crimes under investigation would be found in the electronic files on the iPhone, and because such communications can be conveyed or stored in photographic form, a search of the photograph files was reasonable,” Justice Robert J. Cordy wrote for the majority. “Finally, we conclude that the photographs in question were properly seized as evidence linking the defendant to the crimes under investigation.”

In a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly and Geraldine S. Hines, Justice Barbara A. Lenk argued that the search of the photograph files on the defendant’s “smart” cellphone was not supported by probable cause and that the warrant authorizing that search was not sufficiently particular.

“Here, there was no impediment to limiting the search to certain types and categories of files stored in specific sections of the iPhone’s data storage,”Lenk asserted. “Because there was no substantial basis for believing that the entire set of photograph files on the defendant’s iPhone contained evidence related to the shooting, that portion of the iPhone should not have been included in the ‘place’ to be searched.”

The 33-page decision is Commonwealth v. Dorelas, Lawyers Weekly No. 10-007-16.

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