BOSTON, Feb. 18, 2014—The state’s highest court today vacated a judge’s order that would have kept a jury from hearing key evidence in the trial of Julaine Jules’ alleged murderer, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said.
The Supreme Judicial Court vacated an order by Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders suppressing cell site location information from evidence in the case against SHABAZZ AUGUSTINE (D.O.B. 2/19/79), Jules’ one-time romantic partner, and remanded it for a hearing. A date for that hearing has not yet been set.
On Aug. 24, 2004, after learning that Jules had been seeing another man, Augustine allegedly concocted a ruse to lure her from her Fort Point office to his Dorchester home, killed her, wrapped her remains in plastic and weighted them down, dumped them in the Charles River, and then set her car on fire in Malden near the Revere border.
More than three weeks later, Jules’ remains were spotted on the Cambridge side of the river and, as a result, the Middlesex DA’s office took the lead on the investigation. As part of their probe, investigators obtained a court order from a Superior Court judge for telephone call cell site location information under the prevailing statute. Filing a detailed affidavit, State troopers sought and received the cell site location information, or CSLI, for an 11-day period following Jules’ disappearance. Investigators requested call CSLI, which notes the cell towers that Augustine’s phone connected with when he made or received calls, and not registration CSLI, which is constantly updated.
“Investigators followed all the appropriate steps in obtaining that evidence,” Conley said. “Ten years before this decision, they presented a judge with a detailed affidavit that would have supported the search warrant that the high court today says is necessary.”
In late 2012, after further investigation led the case to be transferred to Suffolk County, Augustine filed a motion to suppress that evidence and keep it from the jury that would decide his case. Sanders granted that motion and prosecutors appealed her decision, arguing that call CSLI is not as detailed or accurate as information from a GPS device, which would require a search warrant, and that the records were compiled as business records by service providers – just like airline manifests, restaurant receipts, and other documents that investigators can obtain through a court order.
The high court vacated Sanders’ suppression order but set new rules governing how investigators may now obtain CSLI evidence, requiring search warrants rather than court orders. In most cases, Conley said, Suffolk prosecutors have been using search warrants in this situation for several years, and few if any other cases are expected to be affected.
In their dissent, two justices drew a sharp distinction between the types of evidence available to investigators: call CSLI, which details the towers that the user’s phone contacts when making or receiving a call, and registration CSLI, which details the towers that the user’s phone contacts every few seconds. In Augustine’s case, investigators sought and received only call CSLI pursuant to their court order.
“The court recognizes the differences between telephone call CSLI and registration CSLI, and then conducts its analysis … as if those differences have no constitutional consequence or as if the [lower] court had ordered the production of registration CLSI,” Justice Ralph Gants wrote. “The court essentially contends that cellular telephone users are speaking on their phones so often that telephone CSLI will provide nearly as many location points as a GPS tracking device or registration CSLI … But this contention is empirically incorrect.”
Gants also agreed with prosecutors that, because call CSLI is significantly less detailed than registration CSLI or the GPS technology to which the majority compared it, it should be accessible as a third party’s business record, which investiators may obtain with a lower burden of proof.
“The telephone CSLI obtained in this case is much closer to the ‘traditional telephone records’ that, the court agrees, are still governed by the third-party doctrine,” Gants continued. “The Supreme Court [has] held that an individual enjoys no constitutional protection from the government obtaining information that he voluntarily furnished to a third party to advance the individual’s interest, whether that purpose is to make a telephone call … or attempt to pay a bribe.”
Conley said that the point is largely moot for most Suffolk cases, since investigators here have been using search warrants to obtain that information for years before today’s decision.
“We’ve been ahead of the curve for some time now,” he said.
All defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.