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A Warrant Is Needed To Obtain Text Messages, State High Court Rules

(mariahdietzler/Flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
(mariahdietzler/Flickr)

Police in Massachusetts can't access your text messages without a warrant, the state's highest court ruled Friday.

The court considered the case of Michael Corbin, who, along with a co-defendant, was convicted of a 2011 double homicide and armed robbery in Boston. Under a federal statute that allows the government to access some electronic information, police sought and obtained an order to get the cellphone information of people — including Corbin — who had been in contact with one of the victims.

In its ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court said law enforcement still needed a warrant to access the contents of Corbin's phone.

"Just as the government may not intercept private telephone calls or written communications without a warrant, we conclude that the Commonwealth may not obtain the content of text messages without a warrant," Justice Geraldine Hines wrote in the ruling.

The state had argued that it could use the federal statute to access Corbin's texts without a warrant because the messages were stored by a cellphone service provider. The SJC rejected that argument, and said even under that same statute, a warrant was required for the text messages in this case.

The court also said a warrant is required under the Massachusetts Constitution. Although Corbin had corresponded with one of the victims on the day of the double murder, that did not "justify intrusion into the content of that communication," the court said.

"A warrant with probable cause was required because Corbin had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the content of his text messages," the court ruled.

In its decision, the SJC cited its landmark ruling in 2014, which said police needed a warrant before getting a phone's location records.

Matthew Segal, the legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said Friday's ruling follows the 2014 case, and is a very significant finding that makes sure the messages we write in our phones are private.

"This is the first time that the court has said that the content of text messages is protected by the state constitution and requires a warrant," Segal said.

Even with its ruling, the court affirmed Corbin's conviction. The court said there was enough other evidence to convict him of the crimes, and the text messages didn't create a substantial likelihood of a miscarriage of justice or influence the jury's decision.

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Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a digital reporter, covering a range of news. She also covers tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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