Monday, March 16, 2015

Robbery conspiracy convictions affirmed - cell phone evidence

US v. Reed, et al.:  In this appeal, the four appellants challenged the trial court’s admission of FBI cellular analysis maps from cell phones purportedly belonging to the four, and their service providers’ cell phone towers, as well as the admission other data derived from the appellants’ cell phones.  They also raised a sufficiency of the evidence challenge, generally denying that they committed the crimes because there were no eye witnesses who could identify them and the government’s theories could have been mere coincidences.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed on all counts.

The appellants committed three robberies in and around the greater metropolitan area of Washington D.C. in December 2012.  During their final robbery, they unwittingly took some cash embedded with GPS devices, which lead police directly to the appellants.  The four appellants went to trial.

At trial, the government provided the appellants’ names, rather than phone numbers, when showing locations of the cell phones on a variety of maps (which, they also argued, were not drawn to scale) corresponding with locations of each of the robberies that took place.  Using a process known as “historical cell-cite analysis,” the FBI can extrapolate an area in which a phone was located over time.  This cell phone evidence, admitted at trial, placed at least one of the appellant near the scene of each robbery at the time the robberies occurred.  Appellants argued that this evidence was not properly authenticated, irrelevant, and unfairly prejudicial.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s admission of this evidence for an abuse of discretion, i.e., whether the admission of the evidence was “arbitrary and irrational,” and it found that the district court properly admitted the evidence, as the government provided adequate reason for the jury to believe that the cell phone data could be used to approximate the phones’ locations at pertinent times and that each cell phone was associated with a particular defendant.  In addition to the FBI maps, the photos and text messages, and the labeling of people in the cell phone contacts lists, served to authenticate each phone as belonging to a specific individual.

One of the appellants raised a Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause challenge, because no everyone in the chain of custody for his purported cell phone testified at trial, i.e., there was no testimony about who initially seized the phone and where it was taken.  Again, the stored photos and text messages on the cell phone allowed the government to connect the phone to this appellant, so any error that may have occurred in the introduction of the evidence was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

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