An attorney for accused double murderer Michael Jason Registe accused the state of violating his client’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy when it obtained cellphone records allegedly tying him to two 2007 slayings.
Speaking before the Georgia Supreme Court Monday morning, attorney Manubir Arora said Columbus Police should have gotten a subpoena before approaching Cricket and asking for records for a cellphone Registe allegedly was using at the time of the killings.
Prosecuting attorney Laure Murphree argued not only that Registe had no Fourth Amendment guarantee to privacy regarding the records because he obtained the phone under an assumed name, and that police did not need a subpoena for the records because an emergency situation existed.
The court is expected to return a decision on the issue by the end of the year.
The appeal grew out of pre-trial defense motions to suppress the cellphone records in the upcoming murder case against Registe.
Registe is accused of the execution-style slaying of two Columbus State University students, Bryan Kilgore, 20, and Randy Newton, 21.
On the night of July 20, 2007, Kilgore borrowed a Chevrolet Blazer from a friend so he could go visit someone he called Mike. Kilgore gave his friend a cellphone number he said was for Mike. When Kilgore didn’t return, the friend called the number and says he spoke to someone named Mike, who said Kilgore already had left their meeting.
Kilgore and Newton were soon found shot to death in the Blazer. After learning about the cellphone number, police faxed Cricket’s legal department, stating that they believed the person with the cellphone to be a murder suspect and that he presented a danger to anyone who encountered him. Cricket released the records, which would ultimately play a part in Registe’s arrest.
But Registe fled the country before he could be found. He ultimately ended up on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and on the television show “America’s Most Wanted.” In August of 2008, he was located and arrested on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. A year later, he was extradited to Columbus, where he already had been indicted for the killings.
In January 2011, Registe’s attorneys filed a motion to suppress the cellphone records, but the trial court denied the motion, setting the stage for Monday’s Supreme Court hearing.
On Monday, Arora challenged the grounds under which police obtained the Cricket records, saying they offered no proof that anyone was in clear and present danger, and that there is no indication in the record as to whether Cricket representatives knew or believed there was such a danger.
Justice Harold Melton interrupted Arora during this argument.
“You talk about what the provider understood to be as an emergency circumstance,” Melton said to Arora. “In this instance the fax request (from police) to the provider said obviously the suspect presents an immediate danger to any law enforcement officer.
“At that point the provider has information from law enforcement that this is urgent.”
“Justice Melton, that’s a fair point to make, if you had any evidence as to what the provider relied on,” Arora responded. The fax may be in the record of the case, but there is nothing in the record to indicate who at Cricket saw the fax and on what information the decision to release the records was made, he said.
Justices David Nahmias and Keith Blackwell also challenged Arora’s assertion, suggesting he was using an argument based on whether a provider may be forced to release records, not on whether they can voluntarily turn them over.
“If the provider wants to give you the records it just has to have a good faith reason to believe there’s an emergency, right?” Nahmias said.
In her response, Murphree argued further that Arora’s arguments might apply to the police seeking contents of phone conversations, but not to simple phone records.
“It has long been held in this court that we’re talking about cellphone records here. We’re not talking about content,” Murphree said.
“We’re talking about business records, and those business records are the property of the provider, and not the individual, in this case Michael Registe.”
Murphree also argued that the police were well within the realm of their authority to ask for the records based on the potential danger Registe presented at the time.