Cell phones, other technologies make crime fighting easier, prosecutor says


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By ED RUNYAN

runyan@vindy,com

WARREN

The standard tools of a stocking cap, handgun and mask didn’t work for a man stealing cellphones from a store in Niles and ordering an employee into the back room in December.

Fail to tell police that you took your boyfriend to the store and bought him paper towels and bleach after he committed a murder? That didn’t work out real well for a Howland woman a year ago either.

In both cases, police unmasked the crime without much difficulty.

In the first case, authorities arrested a suspect in short order and felt pretty confident they had solved the crime.

In the second, police found a receipt in a car, went to the store from which it came and watched surveillance video showing the woman buying bleach and paper towels.

Both exemplify Trumbull County crimes solved with technology.

Such examples prompted Chris Becker, assistant county prosecutor, to say people breaking the law should probably just tell cops the truth. Chances are, technology will get them if the cops don’t, he said.

“Technology over the last 20 years or so has really benefited law enforcement in terms of tracking down what was said, when it was said, where individuals were,” Becker said. “Routinely we search cellphones and photographs. People keep a tremendous amount of data on their cellphones anymore. They’re basically mobile computers.”

He cited the Nasser Hamad aggravated murder case that resulted in Hamad’s conviction on two counts of aggravated murder and other charges last year.

Not only did prosecutors introduce photographs during Hamad’s trial that came from cellphones, but one woman driving down state Route 46 at the time of the shootings even had a citizen dash-cam video recorder running in her car.

She had bought it inexpensively during a local Black Friday sale, she said, thinking it would be useful to document anything foolish other motorists might do.

But it captured clear video of victims fleeing the shooting scene, documented the location of witnesses and showed victims returning to the scene as Hamad was led to a police cruiser.

In the Niles robbery, a suspect was captured about an hour after the crime because he took an iPhone equipped with a tracking feature that told police the phone was now in a parking lot a few miles away in Howland.

When police went to the parking lot, they found a Youngstown man without much of a defense – in a car with incriminating phones, cap and mask inside.

When a teen killed his elderly neighbor in Niles in 2015, he didn’t confess the crime, but he didn’t need to. The blood and DNA evidence all over him and the crime scene spoke volumes.

The 1985 murder of a Youngstown State University coed was not prosecuted until 2008, when technology improved enough for preserved DNA from the crime to be matched to Benny Adams, who was later convicted of the murder.

“In the past 25 years, probably the two greatest changes in criminal justice have been the development of DNA evidence and the increased use of cellphones and the data they contain,” Becker said.

Austin Burke of Bristolville, who is scheduled for trial March 5 in the aggravated murder of a Warren man last June, was arrested within about an hour of a Cortland pizza shop robbery because police tracked his cellphone to near the pizza shop.

Burke’s attorney asked that evidence recovered when Burke was arrested be suppressed from trial in the robbery and an earlier shooting death, but Judge Andrew Logan denied the request.

But the nation’s top court will decide whether cellphone users should be better protected from the government using information from them.

The U.S. Supreme Court is due to decide a Fourth Amendment case this June that touches on use of cell phone data going back weeks or months to track a person’s movements.

The case stems from the conviction of a man in a series of Detroit robberies.

The government says the owner of a cellphone has no reasonable right to privacy while using it, but the defendant argues that the use of the data was improper because the government did not obtain it through a warrant.

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