Have you ever sent a text message that revealed your most intimate of thoughts and emotions? Text messages are often raw, unvarnished, and immediate, not to mention can be taken completely out of context. However, we send them to those who are expected to guard them from publication.
The status of text messages in criminal investigations remains unsettled in the US. Is it reasonable for people to expect the contents of their electronic text messages to remain private, especially from law enforcement? Do we have a right to privacy for text message conversations? Even the United States Supreme Court has struggled with the legal challenges raised by emerging technology, most especially in the realm of cellular phones and their contents.
David Leon Riley was arrested on August 22, 2009, after a traffic stop resulted in the discovery of loaded firearms in his car. The officers took Riley’s phone, and searched through his messages, contacts, videos, and photographs. Based in part on the data stored on Riley’s phone, the officers charged him with an unrelated shooting that had taken place several weeks prior to his arrest.
Gregory Diaz, was arrested for the sale of the illicit drug ecstasy and his cell phone, containing incriminating evidence, was seized and searched without a warrant. In trial court proceedings, Diaz motioned to suppress the information obtained from his cell phone, which was denied on the grounds that the search of his cell phone was incident to a lawful arrest.
At 6:08am, on October 4, 2009, Trisha Oliver frantically called 911 from her apartment in Cranston, Rhode Island when her six-year-old son, Marco Nieves, stopped breathing. The Fire Department took Marco to Hasbro Children’s Hospital, where he was found to be in full cardiac arrest. He died 11 hours later.
By 6:20am, Sgt. Michael Kite of the Cranston Police Department had arrived at the apartment, where he found Oliver, her boyfriend Michael Patino, and their 14-month-old daughter, Jazlyn Oliver. Kite observed a couple of stripped beds and linens on the floor, a trash can with vomit inside it, dark brown vomit in a toilet, and, crucially, a cell phone on the kitchen. Kite picked up the cell phone.
Kite viewed a text message on the phone, which was owned by Trisha Oliver, reading “Wat if I got 2 take him 2 da hospital wat do I say and dos marks on his neck omg.” The message was sent from Oliver to Patino, although the sending of the message apparently failed. There were other messages on the phone “with profane language and references to punching Marco—three times—the hardest of which was in the stomach,” according to court records. Patino was then arrested and charged with murder. He later confessed to the death of Marco Nieves.
Sgt. Kite claims he picked up the phone because it was “beeping,” and that he thought it might help get in touch with the boy’s birth father.
Patino’s attorney argues to exclude the State‘s core evidence from being used at trial, which is the text messages. He wants any other evidence steaming from it such as all cell phones and their contents, all cell phone records, and critical portions of the Defendant‘s videotaped statement and his written statement given to the police suppressed as well. The attorney claims, the cell phone searches were “illegal as warrantless or in excess of the warrants obtained,” and “As such, all of these searches and seizures, therefore, were unreasonable in violation of the Fourth Amendment,”
I realized the information I presented is limited…What do you think about the cases in general? Do you think that Riley or Diaz had an expectation of privacy? Do you think that Patino and Oliver had an expectation of privacy, since the phone was on the kitchen counter in their apartment? Would it make a difference if the phone was found outside in the grass? Do you think the police violated their fourth amendment rights? Should the police have secured a search warrant before looking in the phone in any of these situations? How should the judge handle these cases? Keep in mind that these ruling are used for the basis of future decisions by the courts. Should digital contents of a cell phone be categorized as a warrantless search? Do you think these situations are different from each other or should they all be handled the same?
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