A week after the tragic rock-throwing murder of Alexa Bartell, geofence warrants helped lead to the arrest of three suspects.
As reported by CBS Colorado, three young men, Nicholas Karol-Chik, Zachary Kwak and Joseph Koenig, each listed as 18 years old, were taken into custody.
“This really came as a result of cell phone device forensics. And then supporting information from our public”, said Jefferson County Sheriff spokeswoman, Jacki Kelley. To my knowledge, she didn’t specify what that “supporting information” was.
A geofence warrant (also known as a reverse location warrant) is a search warrant issued by a court to allow law enforcement to search a database to find all active mobile devices within a particular “geofence” area.
Law enforcement’s use of geofence warrants has grown exponentially in recent years. For example, since 2016 (when Google received its first geofence warrant, warrants to Google for users’ location information grew 1,500 percent from 2017 to 2018 and 500 percent from 2018 to 2019.
Google Geofence data was used to identify 5,723 devices as being in or near the US Capitol during the January 6, 2021 riot. And it has led to arrests in other cases while also leading to some false arrests too. It was also ruled unconstitutional in at least one case in Virginia.
In the Alexa Bartell murder case, the searches appear to have been pretty specific. The night Alexa Bartell was killed, there were seven known rock throwing incidents. Investigators knew with great specifics not only the locations of the attacks, but in most cases the times. Also, the area in which the attacks occurred was apparently a remote location, which may have also had an impact.
Asking for that kind of specific data, gives the information a greater chance of surviving in court believes veteran attorney, Karen Steinhauser, who has worked as both a prosecutor and defense attorney.
“These types of broad geofencing warrants that are asking for large areas without being able to particularize where specifically they’re looking. Those are the ones that are getting struck down,” Steinhauser said.
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that any defendant in a criminal trial is assumed to be innocent until they have been proven guilty. Expect the battle over the law enforcement benefits vs. privacy concerns of geofencing to continue.
So, what do you think? Are geofence warrants a good thing? Or are they highly flawed and a violation of data privacy? Or is the answer “it depends”? 😉 Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.
Disclaimer: The views represented herein are exclusively the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views held by my employer, my partners or my clients. eDiscovery Today is made available solely for educational purposes to provide general information about general eDiscovery principles and not to provide specific legal advice applicable to any particular circumstance. eDiscovery Today should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer you have retained and who has agreed to represent you.