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Court: Police lawfully used phone data to solve homicide

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Police were within their rights when they used data from a man’s cellphone to link him to a northeastern Wisconsin homicide, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

George Burch of Green Bay was convicted in 2018 of first-degree intentional homicide in the 2016 death of Nicole VanderHeyden. Her body was found in a Bellevue field.

According to court documents, police were investigating a hit-and-run incident around the same time as VanderHeyden’s death. Burch was a suspect in the hit-and-run and police asked him if they could download texts from his cellphone that Burch claimed would corroborate his alibi. Officers obtained written consent from Burch to search his phone.

Two months later investigators matched DNA on VanderHeyden’s sock to Burch. Investigators went back into the data downloaded from his phone and discovered he was tracking news stories about her death. They also found data that showed the phone was at a bar VanderHeyden visited the night of her death and in the field where she was found.

Burch moved to suppress the evidence from the phone, saying he never gave police permission to pull that much data from it.

The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that to suppress evidence from the phone investigators would have had to engage in clear misconduct when they searched it. Given that Burch gave consent, they had every reason to think the search was lawful, the court said.

Burch’s attorney didn’t immediately respond to a message.

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