Two men jailed for killing a California gas station manager are seeking to have their cases overturned, claiming Los Angeles County investigators broke the law when they scoured Google location data from millions of devices in the hunt for suspects.
The appeal is part of a growing effort by defense lawyers and privacy advocates to curb police use of warrants, an investigative tool driven by the public’s reliance on phones that track their movements.
Driving the opposition is concern that the warrants give police too much discretion in deciding where to search and what movements look suspicious. Opponents say the warrants violate the US Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches by combining the location data of innocent Google users in the pursuit of suspects. They also point to cases where search warrants have led police to the wrong people: a cyclist joined in a burglary investigation, a warehouse worker mistakenly accused of murder.
“It’s really limitless as to how they can be used, and that’s what we’re concerned about,” said Jennifer Lynch, director of surveillance litigation at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group that filed a brief Tuesday at support the appeal of the two. men in the killing of a Los Angeles County gas station manager.
American law enforcement agencies use Geofence warrants, which force Google to provide a list of devices whose location history shows they were near the scene of a crime, helping them investigate murders, arsons, burglaries, sexual assaults and home invasions. solution. and many other crimes – including the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. Warrants are usually sealed by a judge until a suspect is arrested.
Police and prosecutors say geofence warrants are legal because they are signed by judges or magistrates and are limited to investigations where investigators have strong reason to believe they will find the culprits.
The California challenge, filed with the state’s 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles, on March 1, 2019, involves the shooting death of Abdalla Thabet, 38, who managed gas stations owned by his uncle, according to court documents. After collecting money from the businesses, Thabet drove to a Bank of America branch in the city of Paramount. Two cars pulled up behind him. The driver of one of them shot him, and the driver of the other man took his backpack full of cash. Security video showed the two suspect cars in locations where Thabet collected money, according to court documents.
Unable to identify the drivers, Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators asked a judge to compel Google to provide a list of devices in the bank’s area and five locations Thabet visited before he was killed. That required Google to search its database of all devices running apps or software that collected location data.
The list of devices was so large that investigators asked Google to extract it to devices owned by two or more of the sites. Google has provided eight such devices. Four of the locations had two. From there, investigators identified Daniel Meza and Walter Meneses, who were accused of the fatal attack.
The men’s defense lawyers asked the judge to rule the geofence warrant unconstitutional and throw out any evidence that came from it. The judge refused. Meza pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Meneses pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 15 years to life.
Both men were allowed under state law to appeal the judge’s ruling on the geofence warrant. In September, they did.
The appeal accuses investigators of violating not only the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, but also the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The men’s lawyers argue that the geofence warrant invaded the privacy of everyone whose data was collected, including the defendants’, with a search that involved no particular person.
“Most people probably have no idea that such a detailed history of their goings-on and goings-on can be retrieved and examined by law enforcement without their knowledge,” Meza’s lawyer, Sharon Fleming, wrote in a brief .
A lawyer for the state attorney general’s office said in response: “Here, law enforcement did not stop and arrest random members of the public as a matter of course looking for possible unknown crimes. Rather, a search warrant was issued based on probable cause to help identify two suspects who had already committed a known crime.”
Fleming and other lawyers representing the men declined to talk about the case. The attorney general’s office also declined to comment. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither was the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Lynch, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the appeal reflects wider concerns about police investigative powers.
Geofence warrants “sweeping in everyone who might be at a particular location for a certain period of time and allowing the police to decide who to target for further investigation,” she said.
Lynch noted that law enforcement agencies could use geofence warrants to monitor people involved in protests. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reportedly used warrants to investigate riots and arson following the 2020 killing of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Following the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it was reported that police investigating vandalism obtained a geofence warrant that obtained details of people who had gathered in the area, including some who went to protest.
“If the police can use these kinds of warrants whenever they want, they’re going to be used to target people for First Amendment-protected speech, to target people for their reproductive choices, to target people who go to shows gun,” Lynch said.
Withdrawal is slow in the US courts. Last March, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that a geofence warrant used to locate a suspect in a bank robbery was unconstitutional. In September, a state court in San Francisco ruled against the use of a geofence warrant in a burglary investigation.
Brian Owsley, a former federal magistrate who teaches the Fourth Amendment at the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law, said geofence warrants are flawed because they don’t specify who they’re targeting. But because police are already looking for them so often, it will be difficult to curb their use, he said.
The growing legal challenges could lead to a diversity of decisions that could limit law enforcement in some states or jurisdictions but not others, Owsley said. Law enforcement agencies can then try workarounds, such as teaming up with agencies in jurisdictions that do not have restrictions.
“This is a tool that law enforcement is ironically using, and I understand why,” Owsley said. “But at the end of the day there’s a tension, and I’m not sure how you overcome that.”