The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday found that Omaha police violated a man's constitutional rights when they tracked his movements through cellphone tower information without getting a warrant based on probable cause.
The decision in Rolander Brown's murder case is the first time the state Supreme Court has taken up the issue since a U.S. Supreme Court decision effectively overruled previous case law in the state.
"The fact that Brown's Fourth Amendment rights were violated, however, does not necessarily mean that it was error for the district court to deny Brown's motion to suppress," Justice Jonathan J. Papik wrote in a 17-page decision.
In the Omaha man's case, police relied on the Stored Communications Act, a federal statute, to get a court order to get Brown's cellphone information, he said.
Under the act, the government needed only to demonstrate "specific and articulable facts" that they had reasonable grounds to believe the information was relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.
Brown's public defender sought to suppress the information.
But the trial judge denied the motion, citing a Nebraska Supreme Court case, State v. Jenkins, which found that probable cause wasn't necessary.
At the trial that followed, a Douglas County jury found Brown, 28, guilty of second-degree murder and weapons counts in the May 28, 2016, shooting death of 40-year-old Carlos Alonzo.
He was sentenced to 100 to 140 years in prison.
While the case was on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court last summer decided Carpenter v. U.S., finding that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the record of physical movements captured by cellphone towers.
The state conceded that getting the information without a warrant supported by probable cause had violated Brown's right to be free from illegal search and seizure, given the ruling.
But, the Nebraska Supreme Court determined that Brown's conviction should stand because police had been reasonable in relying on a statute, later found to be unconstitutional, to obtain the information.
Papik said: "By obtaining the CSLI (cell site location information) in this case under the Stored Communications Act and without the benefit of the U.S. Supreme Court’s not-yet-issued decision in Carpenter, officers were merely following the statute as written. That is not the type of police activity the exclusionary rule seeks to deter."
The officers, in other words, were acting in good faith, as the state had argued.
It was one of a number of issues Brown's attorney raised and the state Supreme Court rejected on appeal.