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Can the Commonwealth Search a Digital Camera without a Warrant?


One of the main protections set forth in the Constitution, is the right against unlawful searches and seizures of both person and property. Most often, this protection manifests as the requirement that a governmental entity obtain warrant before arresting an individual or seizing his/her property. Owing to this protection, the procedure of obtaining a warrant is not perfunctory, and requires, generally, a showing that the person or property has some bearing on the resolution of a crime. In some cases, an exception to the warrant requirement applies, but retaining the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney is necessary to ensure that the State has either met its burden in obtaining a warrant, or has not overstepped its limited authority in an exigent circumstance. Previously, the U.S. Supreme Court had held that a warrantless search of an individual’s mobile telephone was unconstitutional. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has extended this protection, holding that a warrantless search of a digital camera is also unconstitutional for the same reasons. A discussion of this holding, and, importantly, its limits, will follow below.

Commonwealth v. Mauricio

The case centers around a defendant initially charged with possession of narcotics and breaking and entering. During the arrest, law enforcement searched the defendant’s backpack, ostensibly to inventory the contents. During this search, law enforcement discovered a ring and a digital camera. Searching the photos contained in the digital camera produced photographs of a firearm. It was later determined that both the ring and the firearm in the photographs were stolen. Consequently, the defendant was further charged with receiving stolen property over $250 and possession of a firearm without an identification card.

It should be noted that the primary purpose of an inventory search is to safeguard the defendant’s property, to protect law enforcement against a claim of theft or lost property, and to keep weapons and contraband away from individuals in the jail where the defendant will be held. Accordingly, it is not intended to be investigatory, nor is it supposed to afford an opportunity for law enforcement to go on a fishing expedition. In the trial, the Commonwealth claimed that the purpose of searching the camera’s images was to determine its rightful owner. But, the court ruled that this search was investigatory, and did not meet any exception to the requirement of a warrant.

The court then discussed the similarities between that of the mobile telephone analysis conducted by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the digital camera in the present matter. The court concluded that, similar to a mobile telephone, once the digital camera was secured, the risk of destruction of incriminating evidence is neutralized, but also noted, unlike a mobile telephone, a digital camera was not connected to a computer, and, thus, cannot be remotely wiped. Consequently, the court approved of taking possession of the camera, but disallowed the search of its contents.

The Limitation in the Holding

As noted above, the Supreme Judicial Court did uphold the seizure of the digital camera, much like the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the seizure of the mobile telephone. The primary protection which the Commonwealth violated was the warrantless search of lawfully-seized property, once it had been secured. This result left open the opportunity for the Commonwealth to, once the property has been secured, obtain a search warrant of the contents contained in the property. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help fight against these searches.

Seek Legal Advice

If you, or a loved one, were the intended individual of a warrantless search, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. If the Commonwealth violated the law in searching your property without a warrant, you may be able to exclude this evidence at trial. The attorneys at Leontire & Associates, P.C. have the experience necessary to analyze your specific situation and, if they believe there is a violation of your rights, will work with you to suppress any unlawfully obtained evidence. Contact our Boston office today.


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