Behind the Supreme Court’s Cell Phone Ruling Is the Pursuit of a Dorchester Man

The US Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday that police must obtain a warrant to search the contents of a suspect’s cell phone, a decision cheered by civil libertarians and bemoaned by law enforcement. None of the coverage spoke of law enforcement’s long, frustrating, and sometimes counter-productive pursuit of the Dorchester man at the heart of the case—a quest that included, at one point, serious consideration of putting him to death. It’s a backstory that, while not directly relevant to the legal argument, provides some interesting context.

US v Brima Wurie was one of two cases the Supreme Court took up to determine the cell phone issue. Wurie was arrested on suspicion of selling crack cocaine in a South Boston parking lot. Boston police used his cell phone to determine where he lived, and in searching that house, discovered an additional 215 grams of crack, and a 9mm firearm.

As a practical matter, the Supreme Court ruling has minimal effect on Wurie. It throws out convictions on two charges stemming from what was found at his house, but leaves in place a conviction for distribution—for which he will serve an even 20 years, rather than the 21 years and 10 months of his original sentence. (After an appeals court threw out the two counts but upheld the other, the feds appealed in order to test the principle.)

Police did not know, of course, at the time of the September 2007 arrest that the simple distribution charge would net a 20-year sentence. They presumably thought that additional evidence from Wurie’s house might bolster the charges and penalty. What we don’t know is whether they went that extra step just as a routine matter, or because they knew that they had someone who the BPD and federal authorities had been after for years.

Documents in the court record give no indication that the police were aware of Wurie’s history, but it is hard to believe they were unaware, by the time Wurie had been identified, stopped, arrested, and processed, which is when police first decided to use the cell phone to locate his home.

Wurie’s history of publicly known arrests begins almost as soon as he reached age 17 in 1996 (earlier incidents are sealed). He was convicted of stabbing someone in the back of the head that year, and convicted of assault and battery on a police officer in 2000, among other offenses.

The US Attorney’s office first tried to put Wurie into a federal penitentiary for a separate July 2000 incident, in which he allegedly shot a Citgo employee during a robbery. The federal indictment didn’t come until 2003. In the meantime, Wurie was involved in an atrocious 2002 incident—one that’s particularly notorious within Boston police circles. Wurie was behind the wheel, allegedly after a passenger fired shots at rival Cape Verdeans, for a police chase through the streets of Dorchester. During the chase, Wurie ran down and injured a BPD officer; thinking that the struck officer was being dragged, others opened fire. A 25-year-old woman in the back seat was killed by a police bullet.

Wurie ultimately pleaded guilty to several counts stemming from that incident, receiving a three-year jail sentence. While serving that, the feds tried him for the Citgo shooting—and lost. Wurie was acquitted on those charges in 2004.

But the US Attorney had already indicted him in late 2003 as part of a huge federal case against an alleged Cape Verdean gang called “Stonehurst.” Among the 24 counts brought against him (later narrowed to 12) was the murder of Luis Carvalho in yet another 2000 incident.

The decision to charge Wurie (and others) in federal court was controversial, in part because the murder charge (requiring RICO conspiracy) would be harder to prove than in Suffolk Superior Court, and in part because key testimony came from an extremely unreliable violent criminal, testifying under a deal with federal prosecutors. Nevertheless, the US Attorney’s office not only went forward but asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to consider asking for the death penalty. (I wrote about this and other cases for the Boston Phoenix in 2004.)

Ashcroft decided not to seek the death penalty—which became a moot point in February 2006, when Wurie was again acquitted of all charges.

With the three-year sentence from the car chase wrapping up, Wurie was out on the street in 2006, with a two-year probation hanging over him. There were additional incidents, but they weren’t enough to put him away again.

The bust that finally did Wurie in came on September 5, 2007—not all that long after all this happened, and not all that far from the end of his probation. It appears, at least from the police version of events, that Wurie was not being targeted; a Drug Control Unit detective observed it using good, old, smart policing. But DCU officers learned Wurie’s name quickly from the buyer, who they picked up first; it’s hard to imagine that by the time they picked up Wurie, arrested him, brought him to the South Boston station, and processed him, that they were unaware of their suspect’s notoriety.

It was, according to the police version, some five to 10 minutes later that they noticed the phone ringing, with “my house” appearing on the screen. That’s when they decided to use the phone to determine what that phone number was; used an Internet search tool to match the number to an address; and ultimately search that house.

The Supreme Court ruling now makes that a no-no, regardless of whether Boston’s DCU officers were just routinely following a lead on their suspect, or desperately trying to finally pin a lengthy federal sentence on one of their most aggravating nemeses. There is no legal distinction, but the Wurie backstory suggests a somewhat different context to the chain of events.