Victory! On September 28, 2016 the Supreme Judicial Court unanimously affirmed that the government must have specific information that a cellphone contains evidence of a crime before it can search or seize the device.


Jessie Rossman, Staff Attorney of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said:

"The Commonwealth argued that police officers can seize a suspect's cell phone because the police believe that criminals use phones to communicate. Today's unanimous ruling affirmed that this generic assertion cannot satisfy the Fourth Amendment's probable cause standard, which requires specific information that suggests the phone contains evidence of the crime. Anything less would, in the Court's own words, be "inconsistent with our admonition that individuals have significant privacy interests at stake in their cellular phones.

"As the ACLU of Massachusetts and the Berkman Center Cyber Law Clinic at Harvard Law School argued in its amicus, the Commonwealth's position in this case would have turned the constitutional warrant requirement on its head. Cellphones can store an enormous amount of private information. The courts have already recognized that this capability triggers the need for probable cause protection; it cannot, as the Commonwealth argued, satisfy the probable cause requirement. The Court's ruling preserves the protections of the Fourth Amendment and Article Fourteen in our new technological age and ensures that simply owning a cellphone does not establish probable cause."


Commonwealth v. White, a case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, addresses whether a police officer's warrantless seizure of a student's cell phone and subsequent 68-day delay in obtaining a search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. The Commonwealth's argument that such actions were lawful would permit the government to seize virtually every criminal suspect's cell phone and hold it for months without a warrant.

The ACLU of Massachusetts, along with the Berkman Center Cyber Law Clinic at Harvard Law School, filed an amicus arguing that this position would turn the constitutional warrant requirement on its head and urging the Court to reject the Commonwealth's overly broad views of governmental search and seizure powers. Cellphones have the capacity to store an enormous amount of private information. As the SJC and United States Supreme Court have already recognized, this capability triggers the need for probable cause protection; it does not, as the Commonwealth argues, satisfy the probable cause requirement.

Attorney(s)

Matthew R. Segal and Jessie J. Rossman (ACLU of Massachusetts); Vivek Krishnamurthy and Andrew J. Sellars (Berkman Center Cyber Law Clinic at Harvard Law School)

Date filed

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