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Cellphone evidence hangs up heroin conviction

Cellphone evidence can be important in drug prosecution. But, police must comply with constitutional rights when using this evidence. Recently, a state appeals court vacated the conviction of a defendant convicted of drug charges related to transporting heroin in retrofitted car batteries because law enforcement officials illegally tracked his cellphone without having a search warrant.

Prosecutors charged that the defendant transported almost 60 pounds of heroin, with a street value of $6 million, in retrofitted car batteries from Atlanta to New York City through Montgomery County. It was estimated that this could have been divided into 891,000 heroin doses. He was arrested at the Turnpike King of Prussia toll plaza with three kilos of uncut heroin. According to police, this had a total street value of $1 million.

The defendant did not dispute that he transported the heroin, but claimed that he transported the drugs because of duress from a Mexico drug cartel. He testified that he believed the cartel would kill his brother in Mexico if he did not transport the drugs.

The defendant was convicted after a four-day trial in Montgomery County in August of 2017 on charges of possession with intent to deliver heroin, dealing in proceeds of unlawful activities and criminal use of communication facilities. He was sentenced to a 40-to-80-year prison term for the nine deliveries taking place between April of 2015 and January of 2016.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court, nonetheless, set aside the conviction because real-time cellphone tracking evidence should have been suppressed and kept out of the trial. The appeal court concluded that this cell site location evidence seized from his cellphone was unlawfully seized without a search warrant.

A person has a legitimate expectation of privacy over the record of his physical movement recorded through cell site location information, according to the appeals court. It accordingly ruled that law enforcement officials had to receive a warrant based upon probable cause before getting this information.

The defendant's attorney claimed that additional evidence that was seized as a result of the excluded real-time tracking information should also be excluded. The appeals court returned the case to the county trial court for a new trial.

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