The Admissibility of Digital Evidence in Criminal Cases in Light of Our Modern World
There’s no doubt that technology has revolutionized the modern world as we know it. Nowadays almost everyone carries a smartphone on them at all times. However, while technology (i.e. smartphones) presents us with great advantages, such as convenience, it may also present great disadvantages for some.
A recently decided Rhode Island Superior Court case involves a defendant who moved to suppress evidence of mobile device location systems (i.e. Wi-Fi) which police used to track his cell phone to an alleged murder scene.
Recent Case: State of Rhode Island vs. Thomas Mosley
Mosley was charged with murder for a barbershop shooting that took place in East Providence on August 13, 2014. Throughout the course of investigation, police were able to identify Mosley’s cell phone and trace its location to the barbershop at the exact time of the shooting.
This September 2019 decision deals with the admissibility of various technological information (i.e. GPS, cell-site location pinpointing, and Wi-Fi) offered by the State in a criminal case in attempt to prove the whereabouts of a cell phone device at the time and precise location the crime took place.
A cell phone is constantly exchanging signals with satellites to transmit information. This information can then be used later on to identify the cell phone user’s precise location. This information is acquired when a cell phone connects to a “cell site”. Cell sites act as radio antennas and can generally be found on towers, light posts, flag poles, buildings, etc. Each time a cell phone connects to a cell site, a time-stamped location is automatically generated. These stamps are labeled with anonymous identification numbers.
In terms of investigating criminal cases, police can review the location and movement patterns of these stamps to see if they provide police with any leads. If a stamp pops up at the precise time and location where the crime took place, police then narrow the field to a few cell phones which they suspect belong to suspects or witnesses. Then, after obtaining adequate search warrants, Google divulges the subscribers’ names and other relevant information to police.
The prosecution in this case heavily relied on digital forensics testimony from police. In response, Mosley questioned the reliability of the digital forensics used in his case and argued that it should be disallowed from evidence in court—But, the Court disagreed.
Specifically, the Court reminded Mosley that Rhode Island is generally always “open to evidence of developments in science that would tend to assist the trier of fact” (in this case: GPS, cell-site location pinpointing, and Wi-Fi).
The Court further commented that the digital forensics used to convict Mosley for murder presented “very accurate and precise data”—specifically, the data gathered using Wi-Fi and GPS is so accurate that it is capable of identifying user location to within 10-100 meters.
In sum, it is more likely than not that prosecutorial evidence of cell phone records and other digital forensics will be allowed in court in Rhode Island—despite criminal defendant objections.
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