Judge Drops Hammer On Cell Phone Dragnet

(PresidentialInsider.com)- A federal judge ruled last week that authorities violated the Constitution when they used Google location services to track bank robbery suspects.

US District Court Judge M. Hannah Lauck for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled on Thursday that gathering cellphone information on innocent people near the scene of a 2019 bank robbery without any evidence that they were suspects violated their Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

In 2019, a gunman walked into a Midlothian, Virginia bank and forced a worker to open the safe. He walked out with $195,000. But after three weeks the suspect was still not found.

Because security footage showed that the suspect was holding a cellphone to his ear, a Chesterfield County detective assigned to the case sought a geofence warrant for Google’s location data from all the cellphones within a 150-meter radius of the bank at the time of the robbery.

A local magistrate approved the warrant and Google provided the location data for nineteen devices. The detective narrowed the list down to three devices. Google then provided the identifying information on the three people whose names were connected to those three devices.

The information led detectives to Okello Chatrie who was charged with armed robbery in September 2019 and has been in jail since.

Okello Chatrie’s lawyers argued that the geofence warrant violated the Constitution therefore all the information police collected from the warrant should be thrown out.

While Judge Lauck agreed that the geofence warrant “plainly violates the rights enshrined in” the Fourth Amendment, she stopped short of invalidating the evidence collected from the warrant. She said that the detective who secured the warrant was not at fault, so the evidence he collected could be presented in Chatrie’s trial.

After Judge Lauck’s ruling, Google released a statement saying it was reviewing the court’s decision.

Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project described Judge Lauck’s decision as a landmark ruling that opens the door for more courts to decline law enforcement’s requests to use Google location data.

It should be noted similar geofence warrants were also used to identify people who were in the Capitol Hill area on January 6, 2021.