iPhone of suspect in Hofstra grad student murder locked from DA

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The iPhone belonging to the prime suspect in the macabre murder of a 26-year-old Hofstra graduate has been inaccessible to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office since it was taken from him about 10 months ago, prosecutors disclosed in a court filing Tuesday.

James Rackover, 26, accused in the stabbing and beating death of Joseph Comunale inside Rackover’s 4th floor luxury E. 59th St. apartment on Nov. 13, appeared alongside his alleged accomplice Lawrence (Larry) Dilione, 29, in Manhattan Supreme Court Tuesday for a pre-trial conference at which the smartphone lockout was reported in court papers.

Assistant District Attorney Antoinette Carter, responding to a gripe by Rackover’s team that “the People have taken an unreasonable amount of time to search the devices,” admitted the search has not happened.

Rackover’s phone was recovered during the execution of a search warrant at the start of the investigation.

“While it is accurate that the People have not searched these devices — phones and laptop, this is because they are locked by a password,” Carter wrote. “These devices as of today, have not been opened by technicians because the password key has not been broken.”

“Since the defendant has the passwords, and the People do not, it is odd that he complains about the delay in searching the devices,” she added.

It is not clear what if any useful evidence would be available to prosecutors on Rackover’s phone.

Prior to the widespread use of encryption on modern Apple and Google smartphones beginning around 2014, prosecutors could easily access a defendant’s text messages, photographs and other potentially useful hints stored on a device after obtaining a search warrant.

Lawrence Dilione, 28, of New Jersey, listens as his lawyer speaks during his hearing in criminal court, in December 2016.

Lawrence Dilione, 28, of New Jersey, listens as his lawyer speaks during his hearing in criminal court, in December 2016.

(Bebeto Matthews/AP)

Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. has been a vocal opponent of the ironclad encryption protections used by big technology companies that are meant to guard consumers but can create headaches for law enforcement.

In March 2016, Vance testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary about the issue of encryption and law enforcement.

“iPhones are now the first consumer products in American history that are beyond the reach of Fourth Amendment warrants,” Vance’s written testimony said.

He said that “default device encryption cripples even the most basic steps of a criminal investigation,” in an age where phones commonly store what suspects formerly had in safes and filing cabinets.

In the case of the Sept. 2, 2015 terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., the FBI reportedly paid over $1 million to professional hackers to bypass an iPhone 5C’s security system in a one-time effort to jailbreak a suspect’s phone.

Vance’s office declined to comment on the issue of being locked out of Rackover’s phone.

Rackover is the “surrogate son” of celebrity jeweler Jeffrey Rackover, whose apartment is on the 32nd floor of the same building where Comunale was last seen.

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