Michigan Court Allows Search of Defendant’s Cell Phone GPS Data

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Michigan breaking and entering case involving law enforcement’s use of GPS data recovered from the defendant’s cellular phone. The case required the court to determine if law enforcement’s search of the defendant’s phone required suppression of the evidence that was on the phone. Ultimately, the court concluded that the search was permissible, affirming the defendant’s convictions.

According to the court’s opinion, the allegations in this case spanned from December 22 to December 23, 2016. Evidently, someone broke into a Clinton County business and then stole a car from a neighboring business. Later that day, a barn in Bingham Township was broken into. The next day, a gun was stolen from a car in Fowler. Several of these locations had video surveillance.

After reviewing the video, detectives developed the defendant, who was known to police, as a suspect. A few days later the defendant was arrested. While being held at the jail, the defendant asked a deputy if he could get his phone back to make a call. When the deputy gave the defendant his phone, the defendant performed a factory reset.

The defendant’s girlfriend came to visit him at the jail a few days later. This interaction was recorded, and the defendant could be seen showing his girlfriend a piece of paper. Detectives later spoke to the girlfriend, who told them that the defendant was showing her his Google account info, and asked her to delete it. Detectives logged in to the defendant’s Google account, changed the password to preserve the account, and then obtained a warrant. GPS data from the defendant’s phone showed that his phone was at each of the locations around the time the crimes were reported.

The defendant was ultimately convicted of several crimes, and filed an appeal asking the court to suppress the GPS. The defendant argued that the warrant obtained by police did not authorize the search of his Cloud data. Notably, the defendant did not file a pre-trial motion to suppress, so the issue was not preserved for appeal. Thus, the appellate court only reviewed the claim for plain error, which is a difficult threshold to meet.

Upon review, the court held that the search of the defendant’s phone was not illegal. The court noted that law enforcement obtained a warrant to search “subscriber and call logs, to include Cloud, SMS, and MMS data for the phone.” Because the warrant specifically authorized law enforcement to search the defendant’s Cloud data, the court held that the search was included within the scope of the warrant.

As this case illustrates, law enforcement increasingly relies on technology to gather evidence. Cell phones, as well as the GPS data they contain, are often the subject of a search warrant. However, there are strict laws governing when police can search cell phones and when police step out of line, any evidence they recover must be suppressed.

Have You Been Arrested for a Michigan Crime?

If you have recently been arrested and charged with a serious Michigan theft crime, contact the dedicated criminal defense lawyers at Michigan Defense Law. Attorney Paul J. Tafelski is a veteran Detroit criminal defense attorney with extensive experience handling even the most complex and difficult cases. To learn more, and to schedule a free consultation to discuss your case, call 248-451-2200 today.

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