The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on June 1 that senders of text messages aren’t granted a right to privacy that could stop law enforcement from obtaining and using their messages against them as evidence in a criminal case.
The 5–0 precedent-setting decision (pdf) came in a case involving a Massachusetts man, Jorge Delgado-Rivera, who was indicted—alongside six others—on cocaine-trafficking charges.
An investigation that led to his indictment was sparked by evidence in the form of text messages that were obtained in 2016 by a Texas police officer during a traffic stop. The officer had searched a cellphone that belonged to Leonel Garcia-Castaneda. Delgado-Rivera had sent text messages to that phone, which appeared to link him to an alleged drug-trafficking ring.
Garcia-Castaneda sought to suppress evidence seized during the traffic stop, arguing that the search was without a warrant and probable cause, and was thereby in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 14 of the Massachusetts Constitution.
Justices on the court ruled unanimously that a lower court had erred in siding with Delgado-Rivera, who asserted that he had standing to join in Garcia-Castaneda’s motion to challenge the stop and search.
Justice Frank Gaziano wrote for the court that Delgado-Rivera shouldn’t have been allowed to challenge the search of his sent messages “because he enjoyed no reasonable expectation of privacy, under either State or Federal law, in the text messages sent by him that were stored on a cellular telephone belonging to, and possessed by, another person.”
The decision noted that several previous federal court decisions “have held uniformly that, ‘if a letter is sent to another, the sender’s expectation of privacy ordinarily terminates upon delivery.'”
Delgado-Rivera had “no reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment in the text messages at issue because, once they were delivered, Garcia-Castaneda, as the recipient, gained ‘full control of whether to share or disseminate the sender’s message,'” Gaziano wrote.
The justices acknowledged that certain oral conversations may have reasonable expectation of privacy. However, they dismissed the idea asserted by Delgado-Rivera that text messages are similar to oral conversations because they “tend to be more informal and are exchanged more frequently, in a shorter format, than are other forms of written communication.” The judges called his reasoning “unconvincing.”
“The relative formality, frequency, or sensitivity of communication does not alone characterize the distinction between communications in which an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy and those in which the individual does not,” Gaziano wrote. “The fact that individuals communicate personally revealing thoughts, feelings, and facts via text message rather than through another medium does not alter the analysis of whether they retained a reasonable expectation of privacy in those communications.”
The ruling applies to regular text messages and not encrypted or ephemeral messaging, the court noted.
“The question whether an individual could use certain types of technologies, such as encryption or ephemeral messaging, to maintain control of sent electronic messages sufficiently to retain a reasonable expectation of privacy in those messages is not before us,” reads a footnote in the decision.
The case marked the first time the Massachusetts court had addressed privacy rights for senders of text messages, Gaziano noted.