Are Geofence Warrants Unconstitutional Under the Fourth Amendment

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In recent years, the use of geofence warrants has become a controversial topic. These warrants, which allow law enforcement to access the location history and other location information of individuals within a specific geographical area, have raised concerns about their constitutionality under the Fourth Amendment. 

Geofence warrants are typically issued to tech companies, such as Google, in order to obtain location data on all devices within a certain radius during a specific time frame.

This can result in a large number of devices and individuals having their location information accessed, without their knowledge or consent.

The use of these warrants has sparked debates about the protection of privacy and the potential for overreach by law enforcement. Critics argue that geofence warrants violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures

Google reported that geofence warrants constituted about one-quarter of all U.S. warrants it received. The number of geofence warrants received by Google has increased significantly, from 982 in 2018 to 11,554 in 2020. Most of these warrants are obtained by local and state authorities, with federal law enforcement accounting for only a small percentage.

This article will cover the following topics:

how does a geofence warrant work

What is a Geofence Warrant and How Does it Work

A geofence warrant operates by using the vast amount of location data generated by smartphones and other digital devices. This data, collected by various apps and services, becomes a focal point in criminal investigations. When law enforcement agencies suspect a crime, they can request a geofence warrant.

This warrant is distinctive because it targets a geographical area rather than a specific person or address.

It specifies a particular location and a defined time frame. Once issued, technology companies, such as Google or Apple, provide law enforcement with anonymized data about all devices present within the specified ‘geofence’ during the set time.

This data shows device movement patterns and locations at specific times. If patterns in the data align with the behavior of potential suspects, law enforcement can then request further information from the tech companies, which may lead to the identification of individual device owners. 

The Fourth Amendment and Digital Privacy

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures, stating that warrants must be specific and based on probable cause.

Geofence warrants, due to their broad nature, capture data from numerous individuals in a designated area, not just suspects, raising serious privacy concerns. These warrants have become central in discussions about the balance between effective law enforcement and individual privacy rights. The U.S. Supreme Court, in cases like Carpenter v. United States, has started addressing digital privacy, ruling that accessing cell phone location records without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment.

This decision reflects a growing trend towards stronger digital data protection under constitutional law.

The ongoing legal debate centers on finding a balance between the necessities of law enforcement and the privacy rights of individuals. As technology and legal interpretations evolve, the application of the Fourth Amendment in the context of digital privacy and tools like geofence warrants remains an area of legal discourse.

Case Precedent

In the case of People v. Meza, the California Court of Appeal made a significant ruling on the constitutionality of geofence warrants under the Fourth Amendment.

This case is particularly notable because it represents the first time an appellate court in the United States has reviewed a geofence warrant.

In the Meza case, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department deputies were investigating a homicide and sought a warrant to force Google to turn over identifying information for every device with a Google account that was within any of six locations over a five-hour window.

The warrant covered areas equivalent to about 24 football fields, including large apartment buildings, churches, barber shops, nail salons, medical centers, restaurants, a public library, and a union headquarters.

The Court of Appeal found that the geofence warrant at issue was invalid under the Fourth Amendment. The court held that the warrant failed to place any meaningful restriction on the discretion of law enforcement officers to determine which accounts would be subject to further scrutiny.

Furthermore, the court ruled the warrant was overbroad, authorizing the identification of any individual within six large search areas without any particularized probable cause as to each person or their location. The court also noted that the geographic areas and time periods covered by the warrant were impermissibly broad, including areas where the suspects could not have been and times when the suspects had already moved on.

Despite finding the warrant violated the Fourth Amendment, the court refused to suppress the evidence, ruling that the officers acted in good faith based on a facially valid warrant. The court also held that the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act’s (CalECPA) suppression remedy applied only to statutory violations, not when the warrant violated the Fourth Amendment alone, creating a potentially contradictory and hazardous precedent regarding CalECPA’s particularity requirements and suppression remedy.

defenses for geofence warrants

Defending Against Criminal Implications from a Geofence Warrant

For individuals who find themselves criminally implicated due to data obtained from a geofence warrant, there are several potential defenses and considerations. These defenses are based on challenging the legal and procedural aspects of the geofence warrant and the evidence obtained from it.

Key Potential Defenses

  1. Challenging the Constitutionality of the Warrant: Arguing that the geofence warrant was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. This defense can be based on the warrant being overly broad, not specifying individual targets, or lacking particularized probable cause for each person implicated.
  2. Questioning the Reliability of Data: The reliability of location data can be questioned, especially considering the possibility of inaccuracies in GPS and other location services. Defense may involve technical expert testimony on the limitations and potential errors of digital location tracking.
  3. Suppressing Evidence: Seeking to suppress evidence obtained through the geofence warrant. This could be based on the warrant’s constitutionality, lack of particularity, or if law enforcement exceeded the scope of the warrant during its execution.
  4. Arguing Lack of Probable Cause: Challenging the probable cause basis of the warrant, especially if the data collection was extensive and non-specific, capturing data from a wide range of individuals unrelated to the crime.
  5. Asserting Privacy Rights: Emphasizing individual privacy rights, especially in cases where the warrant covered private residences or sensitive locations, which could be argued as an unreasonable invasion of privacy.
  6. Good Faith Exception Challenge: If law enforcement claims the good faith exception (believing the warrant was valid), defense can counter-argue that the warrant was so lacking in indicia of probable cause or so facially deficient that the good faith exception should not apply.
  7. Analyzing Procedural Compliance: Scrutinizing whether law enforcement followed proper procedures in obtaining and executing the warrant, including the three-step process often involved in geofence warrant execution.

Geofence Search versus Traditional Search Warrant

Geofence warrants and traditional search warrants differ significantly in their usage, application, and the legal process for obtaining them.

Usage and Purpose

  • Geofence Warrants: These are used to collect location data from all digital devices within a designated geographic area during a specific time period. They are typically employed in cases where suspects are unknown but their presence in a certain area at a certain time is crucial to the investigation.
  • Traditional Search Warrants: Traditional warrants are used to search specific locations, such as homes or offices, and seize evidence. They are applied when there is a reasonable belief that the specified location contains evidence related to a crime.

Process of Obtaining

  • Obtaining Geofence Warrants: To acquire a geofence warrant, law enforcement agencies must submit a warrant application to a court. The application must justify the need to collect location data from a specified area and time, demonstrating how it’s relevant to an ongoing investigation. The specificity of the area and time frame is crucial, but individual suspects are not identified in the warrant.
  • Obtaining Traditional Search Warrants: For a traditional search warrant, law enforcement must provide a sworn affidavit to a judge detailing the probable cause for the search. This includes specific information about the crime, evidence likely to be found, and a detailed description of the place to be searched. The warrant is issued if the judge is convinced that there’s a sufficient basis to believe that the search will yield evidence related to a crime.

Legal Standards and Requirements

  • Legal Standards for Geofence Warrants: Geofence warrants require a demonstration of why collecting data from a broad area is necessary for the investigation. However, they have raised concerns about privacy and the potential for overreach, as they can collect data from numerous individuals not involved in the crime.
  • Legal Standards for Traditional Search Warrants: Traditional search warrants require a higher degree of specificity and a clear demonstration of probable cause. They are more targeted, focusing on specific locations and individuals linked to the criminal activity, aligning closely with Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In summary, while both types of warrants are tools for law enforcement in criminal investigations, geofence warrants have a broader scope and are used in situations with less initial information about suspects, whereas traditional search warrants are more specific, targeting known locations and individuals based on established probable cause.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney

Arja Shah LawArja Shah | Shah Law Firm , recognized for its criminal defense expertise, handles complex legal matters, including issues related to geofence warrants and Fourth Amendment rights

For legal assistance, Arja Shah Law can be reached at (602) 560-7408, or via email at . Additional contact information and details about their services are available on their contact page.

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