This case, State v. Price, is the second cell phone search warrant case from the New Mexico Supreme Court in the last couple of weeks. In this case, the Court examines a diretct interlocutory appeal of a motion to suppress from district court in a case where life imprisonment is possible, and reverses in part the district court’s decision to suppress evidence.
Police were called to investigate a man found fatally shot in his car. They founds the victim’s cell phone from the car and discovered that a number had been dialed and had called the phone shortly before the shooting. The number was not associated with any contact information in the phone.
Police obtained a search warrant for subscriber information, location data, and call and text records associated with a phone number from the victim’s cell phone. Pursuant to that warrant, they obtained the data from the cell provider. That information ultimately led them to find and indict Defendant for the murder.
Defendant moved to suppress, arguing that there was nothing in the affidavit to link him to the crime. The district court suppressed all of the information except for Defendant’s identity as the owner of the cell phone that victim’s phone had called. The State appealed.
On appeal, the Supreme Court applied the same standard applied by the district court, examining whether the search warrant affidavit as a whole, and the reasonable inferences that may be drawn therefrom, provided a substantial basis for determining that there was probable cause to believe that a search would uncover evidence of wrongdoing. If so, then the warrant was valid and the evidence should not have been suppressed.
Probable cause exists when there are reasonable grounds to believe that an offense has been or is being committed in the place to be searched. It is a fact-based determination made on a case-by-case basis. Probable cause lies somewhere between reasonable suspicion and certainty. In looking for probable cause, the Court reviews only the information provided to the issuing judge at the time the search warrant and affidavit were presented.
The Court began with the location data. Recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent established that a search warrant is necessary to obtain location data. The issuing judge found probable cause, but the district court disagreed and suppressed the information. On appeal, the question was whether there was a substantial basis to support the issuing court’s finding of probable cause.
The Court, noting that it was a close question, determined that there was probable cause that the location data would contain evidence of a crime. Defendant had visited two women to borrow money. Thirty minutes later, he was found dead. In those thirty minutes, he sent and received calls from Defendant’s number. The Court concluded that this was enough to find probable cause that the person associated with the phone number had been in the vicinity of the crime when the murder took place. Accordingly, the warrant for the location data was valid.
Proceeding to the subscriber identity and call/text records, the Court assumed without deciding that a warrant was necessary to obtain that information as well (though some authority holds that it is not). In a single paragraph, the Court stated that the affidavit established probable cause to obtain the identity records to establish who the victim spoke to immediately before he was shot and that the call/text records might contain evidence of a crime.
Because the district court had suppressed two of the three types of information, the Court reversed in part, effectively letting all the information come in.
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