Most search warrants have a suspect’s name or address to delineate the terms of the search.
But this one, tucked away recently in Danville Circuit Court, lists a set of four latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. It’s a request to collect from Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, any information on cellphones to pass through those coordinates at a certain time.
It’s commonplace for police to pull data from cellphones. Such search warrants seeking information of who dialed or texted someone else around the time of a crime has been a staple of courthouses in the region and across the country for years. But now police investigators are steadily requesting near-pinpoint location data from companies such as Facebook and Google.
Experts call this a “geofence” search warrant. And the data is so accurate that it can do more than place a cellphone in a specific part of a city — it can place it at a specific street address at a specific time.
“This is an increasingly common type of request to Google,” said Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in surveillance and privacy issues.
These types of search warrants seek to place at a specific location anyone who has used a Google location history service in a given time. All it takes is a Google web browser or map service app — such as Google Chrome or Google Maps — on the phone, and the technology company just might have what police want.
The Danville Police Department, according to a handful of search warrants filed in recent months, is using this technology in multiple cases to solve a burglary and even homicides.
A search warrant filed Dec. 26 offers insight into the police investigation of the November break-in of the Target store at Holt Garrison Parkway. According to the warrant, surveillance footage showed multiple people smashing through the store’s front glass door. They took several items valued at more than $500, the search warrant states.
The warrant goes on to note the break-in occurred between 3 and 4 a.m. The warrant lists four latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates that police confirmed include the area surrounding the store.
“The geographic location described in ... this affidavit encompasses the Target store and parking lot,” Sgt. J.A. Pulley wrote in the search warrant.
In other words, investigators have used the coordinates to create a metaphorical fence around the area in an attempt to net suspects.
A cursory review of search warrants filed in Danville courts turned up only a few geofencing warrants, and all have been filed in recent weeks.
Capt. Matthew Carter told the Register & Bee he is unsure of how long the city police have used any particular investigative technique, especially geofence search warrants.
Google, however, notes in an amicus brief from the ongoing Supreme Court case U.S. v. Okello T. Chatrie — a case involving a suspected bank robber who police arrested based on geofence technology — that it has seen a recent spike in the number of geofence search warrants over the years.
“Year over year, Google has observed over a 1,500% increase in the number of geofence requests it received in 2018 compared to 2017,” the technology company wrote in the brief. “And to date, the rate has increased over 500% from 2018 to 2019.”
Other geofencing warrants by the Danville Police department involve the investigation of two active homicide cases from 2016 and 2017.
One warrant is part of the investigation into a 2016 double homicide. The two people killed that day were John Henry Stewart Jr., 35, and Alan Wayne McFall Jr., 47. On May 3, 2016, police responded to a call reporting gunfire at an apartment building on 320 Hughes St. The caller mentioned there was a dead person in one of the apartments. When police entered, they found one man lying in a pool of blood. When checking his vital signs, they found another man’s body in the next room. First responders pronounced both men dead at the scene.
The search warrant lists four different longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates, none of which share the same address as the crime scene, which happened in the 300 block of Hughes Street. One set of coordinates listed in the warrant, however, is close — it’s the 200 block of Hughes Street.
Lee Reiber, of Oxygen Forensics, an Alexandria-based company that specializes in extracting data from mobile devices, believes police are using the technology to confirm the locations of suspects during the time of the homicide.
“It looks as they believe they have suspect(s) and most likely when they interviewed them they either said they were not in the area or did not tell them anything,” Reiber wrote in an email. “So it appears this request is to gather information that the devices they were using on the date(s) in question were in the area where the crime occurred.”
In the material facts section of the search warrant, it explains investigators are in fact looking to confirm the locations of their potential suspects.
“During the course of the investigation, two suspects were developed and ... their locations before, during and after the homicide were identified but not confirmed,” investigator R.P. Wright wrote in the warrant. “It was also determined that the suspects potentially had mobile devices on their persons at the time of the offence.”
The other search warrant is for a homicide that happened May 13, 2017. On that day, Haywood “Biscuit” Carter, 68, was killed during a home invasion. Police responded to Carter’s 600 Shelton St. home at 2:10 a.m. on a Saturday. First responders discovered Carter and his wife both suffering from gunshot wounds. Both were rushed to a hospital, where Carter died.
This warrant states police are looking to verify “who was present near or at the scene of the homicide at the time of the offence,” Wright wrote.
Some privacy advocates warn geofence search warrants, if looking for overly broad information, have the potential to cause innocent people to fall under the suspicion of police.
Mana Azarmi, a policy counsel with the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington D.C.-based organization that champions online civil liberties, agrees, especially in cases where investigators don’t have a particular suspect in mind.
“There is the opportunity for police to investigate someone who was innocently in the area,” she said.
She pointed to news articles detailing how some innocent people have been caught up in such investigations. In one instance, the New York Times explained how an Arizona man spent time in jail in 2018 after police investigating a homicide executed a geofencing search warrant that placed his phone near the crime scene. He was eventually released and police did not pursue further charges against him, instead focusing on other avenues of the investigation. Still, the man lost his job because police arrested him at work and his car, which had been impounded for investigation, was eventually repossessed.
“Because police aren’t starting with a known suspect, there’s the opportunity for innocent people to be swept up in the investigation,” Azarmi said.
Avent is a reporter with the Danville Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 797-7983.