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Colorado trial attorneys

‘Geofence’ warrants throw out dragnets that ensnare the innocent

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP March 15, 2020

A Gainesville, Florida, man got a surprising email from Google in January. The company wanted him to know that local police were seeking information about his Google account and that they would release that information to the police unless the man went to court and blocked the request within seven days.

It turns out that the police were investigating a burglary. In an effort to find suspects, they had done what is called a “geofence” warrant — one where they were seeking the identities of everyone who had been in the area at the time of the burglary.  As the Gainesville man had been riding his bike in the area with his location services turned on. He was now the lead suspect in a burglary he had nothing to do with.

What are geofence warrants?

Geofence warrants have become increasingly common over the past couple of years and are used by local, state and federal law enforcement. Since a geofence warrant is essentially a dragnet, however, it tends to drag in a lot of innocent people. Even Google describes this as “a significant incursion on privacy.”

Critics of geofence warrants argue that they stand the usual constitutional principles on their heads. Instead of doing police work to identify a small number of suspects and getting a search warrant based on individualized suspicion, the police simply pull the location data for anyone who was in the area, innocent or guilty.

In defense of the warrants, police point out that the initial data they receive is completely anonymous. It only shows the devices in the area and their activity. Only if a device seems suspicious do the police ask Google to identify the users of the devices. Furthermore, the information from a geofence warrant alone is not sufficient for a criminal charge.

What does this mean for Colorado criminal court

As of this writing, there have been no public reports of police utilizing this “dragnet” policy in Colorado for crimes. However, the technology is at use in Denver to control where e-scooters may or may not go.  It may only be a matter of time before police begin using them in investigations.

Many believe that we have nothing to fear from police dragnets unless we’ve committed a crime. As the Gainesville man learned, however, being at the wrong place at the wrong time can make you a suspect. In a case like this, you want your legal team to be innovative and skilled in combating new policing technology.