We reported last March on the incisive – but curiously incomplete – ruling by Judge Mary Hannah Lauck of the federal district court in Richmond, Virginia, who held that a broad geofence warrant was unconstitutional.
This case began when Richmond police set out to catch a bank robber. They asked Google to sweep seven days’ worth of location data from a geofenced area large enough to track people and their devices in a targeted area, from diners at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant, to any one of the guests at a Hampton Inn, to residents of an apartment complex and a senior living facility.
In this case, United States v. Chatrie, Judge Lauck noted Google logs cellphone users’ location 240 times a day. She wrote that because of this, Google gives the police “an almost unlimited pool from which to seek location data” in a broad area in which everyone in that pool has “effectively been tailed.”
In a detailed ruling, she wrote that Google’s database “appears to be the most sweeping, granular, and comprehensive tool – to a significant degree – when it comes to storing location data.” Despite finding the warrant unconstitutional, however, Judge Lauck did not suppress the evidence because she ruled that the police acted in “good faith.”
The technology in question is both granular and unreliable. It can tell police which floor of a building a person was on. But this same technology can also yield false positives – putting someone at a location she was not at, transforming an innocent person into a suspect.
Now the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation have teamed up to file two amicus briefs in Chatrie and another case yielding similar issues, People v. Meza. In the latter case, police requested data for a geographic area equivalent to about 24 football fields.
In their briefs before appellate courts, ACLU and EFF argued that these “general warrants” do not require the police to show probable cause to believe any one device was linked to a crime under investigation.
Despite Judge Lauck’s well-reasoned and well-researched affirmation of the Fourth Amendment, her decision lacked teeth because the evidence – tainted as it was – was ruled admissible. This is no mere pedantic distinction in a single case involving a bank robber.
Google reports that geofenced warrants now constitute more than one-quarter of the total warrants it receives. PPSA joins our civil liberties colleagues in urging the appellate courts to crack down on these wide-ranging, indiscriminate general warrants for the digital age.