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Police use Google Maps data to find suspects, but is it legal?

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and prosecutors throughout the country have taken to using more and more technology to gather evidence to support criminal charges. But are these methods legal? In some cases they are, but in others they are not. As a result, those who face criminal charges as a result of new technology are wise to carefully review the methods used by police.

One example involves the use of reverse location, or geofence technology, on phones that were near a crime scene. Enforcement officers can use data gathered in this manner to support criminal charges.

What is this data?

Right now, we basically live in a fishbowl. This is especially true for those who use smartphones. One popular app, Google Maps, is known to automatically tracks users. The company states it deletes the information automatically after 18 months, users can delete the information and users can opt out of this feature.

In 2016, federal authorities began using reverse location warrants. This type of warrant uses this technology to determine who is in a specific area at a specific time. This helps aid in investigations and can lead to an arrest.

Prosecutors argue the information gathered using reverse location or geofence warrants is invaluable, helping to keep communities safe. Civil rights advocates counter that these warrants are an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.

Can you fight data gathered in this manner?

In a recent case that asked this question, the accused argued the warrant was too broad. In general, authorities are required to have specific information in order to get a valid warrant. Previous judges have struck down these requests, encouraging enforcement officers to make requests for a limited area and cellular numbers. Additional guidance often used by courts when answering this question include the following:

  • Location. Courts will generally take the location into consideration when determining if a geofence warrant was legal. They will review whether or not the requested location includes constitutionally protected areas like within one’s home or at a doctor’s appointment.
  • Time period. Courts may also review the length of the request. A warrant requesting a search for a forty-five-minute time period is more likely to get thrown out than one for a shorter amount of time.
  • Scope. The court will likely review the number of cellphones or mobile devices covered by the warrant. A warrant that takes in a large amount of data is less likely to survive compared to one that only takes in a few.

Those who face criminal charges due to evidence gathered using a reverse location or geofence warrant can challenge the constitutionality of the method used to gather the evidence. This could result in the court finding the warrant invalid and throwing out any evidence that came from the search, potentially leading to a drop or reduction of charges.