Massachusetts court rules text messages can be used against their senders

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday ruled that a person’s privacy rights do not prevent law enforcement from obtaining and using their text messages as evidence in a trial.

The justices unanimously ruled that a lower court erred in siding with a Massachusetts man who sought to block a search of his text messages. The man, Jorge Delgado-Rivera, was charged with six others in a drug trafficking case.

Justice Frank Gaziano wrote on behalf of the justices Tuesday that the defendant had “no reasonable expectation of privacy in the sent text messages because, as with some other forms of written communication, delivery created a memorialized record of the communication that was beyond the control of the sender.”

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The justice cited previous federal court decisions that have upheld “if a letter is sent to another, the sender's expectation of privacy ordinarily terminates upon delivery.”

Gaziano added that while the reasonable expectation of privacy right guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment may apply to “certain oral conversations,” this does not apply in the same way to written communication, regardless of the content of the messages.

“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 justice wrote.

The decision, which Gaziano noted was the first time the court addressed privacy rights in the context of text messages, centered around a message a Texas police officer had found on another person's cellphone in 2016 that appeared to link Delgado-Rivera to an alleged drug ring, according to court documents. 

The Massachusetts high court noted that while the other person is not one of the other individuals charged in the drug trafficking case, “Delgado-Rivera assumed the risk that the communications he shared with" that person "might be made accessible to others, including law enforcement."

Gaziano contended, however, that similar reasoning may not necessarily apply to a text message sent through an “encrypted messaging service,” so long as the defendant “could establish a reasonable expectation of privacy based on the use of the encryption technology employed.” 

According to court records, Delgado-Rivera and the other defendants were indicted on charges of trafficking at least 200 grams of cocaine, conspiracy to violate drug laws and conspiracy to commit money laundering. 

Delgado-Rivera was first charged in 2017 and was held on a $75,000 cash bail for nearly two years, according to The Boston Globe