Police Cell Phone Hacking

By Jacob McCollum

INDIO, CA – During the retrial of Cathedral City resident Sergio Lopez Guzman in Riverside County Superior Court last week, a police officer revealed the powerful technologies police can use to access private information from cell phones.

Guzman was convicted of six counts of robbery in 2018. For those charges alone he and his co-defendants face up to 19 years in prison.

However, Riverside District Attorney Hestrin was not not satisfied with the two-decades-long sentence and is also pursuing gang enhancements for Guzman, who, if convicted, could spend the rest of his natural life in prison.

In California under the gang sentencing enhancement in California Penal Code section 186.22(b), those convicted of a criminal offense can face a significantly greater sentence when the People can prove that the defendant committed the crime for the benefit of a criminal street gang, or even that the defendant intended to assist, further, or promote criminal conduct by gang members.

The CA Penal Code describes a criminal street gang as “any ongoing group of three or more people that has a common name or identifying sign or symbol, is involved in committing crimes as one of its primary activities and whose members have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity.”

Investigator Jeremy Herick testified that one way his police department verified that Guzman was part of an alleged gang, Barrio Dream Homes, was through evidence taken from a phone belonging to one of the defendants.

In cross-examination, Riverside City Attorney Steven Sorenson asked, “Did you do an examination of a Samsung Galaxy phone in connection with this case?”

“Yes, there were several,” Herick responded.

“And how many 3’s were there?” Sorenson continued.

“That I Cellebrited? There was one,” Herick said under oath.

Cellebrite is described as a “Digital Intelligence Platform, empowers law enforcement, governments, and enterprises to collect, review, analyze and manage digital data,” according to the company’s website. The platform allows law enforcement to access, index, and clone data on cell phones and tablets. Even when law enforcement does not have a password.

“I accessed the phone, set the password to ‘no password.’ I followed the Cellebrite instructions for the make and model. I plugged the phone. And then I extracted it to an external hard drive,” Herick testified.

When asked by Sorenson if he had observed the cell phone data he extracted, Herick responded, “Yes, I did. I used a program called Physical Analyzer which I’ve previously described as an independent program. It is owned and operated by Cellebrite. It allows you to further review and inspect the elements or data that is collected from the phone.”

“As you’re extracting different photographs, is there what is called metadata associated with the photographs?” Sorenson asked.

“Yes, there is data captured by the device. It can contain numerous amounts of information…the type of device that took the photo, date and time, gps location…it can even include the settings on the phone,” said Herick.

Throughout the several hours of testimony, Sorenson directed Herick’s attention to photos extracted from the phone and attempted to lay the foundation that the photos contained indicia and evidence of gang involvement.

“This is a photograph of…with an Old English hat on his head…as previous testimony this is a D that the Dream Homes gang would commonly wear on their clothing,” he said.”

In order to prove a gang enhancement, the prosecution has to show that those affiliated in criminal conspiracy have a “common name or identifying sign or symbol.” Previously the defense for Guzman alleged that a large Old English D that Guzman had tattooed on his chest was an initial of Guzman’s favorite wrestler; and not connected in any way with a criminal street gang.

Using evidence pulled from several cell phones recovered in connection with this case, the prosecution attempted to show that the D was also associated with other allegedly well known gang members wearing the insignia and wielding firearms.

Guzman and his co-defendants were convicted of stealing $40, a wallet, a jar of cannabis and several electronics including a television, a tablet, an Xbox and several cell phones, in addition to related assault and battery charges.

If convicted of the gang enhancements as well, he and his co-defendants face up to 150 years in prison.

Jacob is a Political Science-Public Service major in his final year at UC Davis. He is originally from Texas, but hopes you don’t hold that against him.

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