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'Geofence' Warrant in Gunfight Case Raises Privacy Concerns

Investigators turned to a "geofence" search warrant when they noticed people using cell phones in security footage of a gunfight at a northern Virginia motel, reports the Washington Post. A powerful new tool, "geofence" warrants ask Google to list all cellphones active in a given crime scene to help police crack cases. They have been used to find suspects in cases from bank robberies to the Jan. 6, 2021 riot in Washington. Authorities receive a list of anonymous numbers associated with the devices in the area, which they then ask Google to unmask. These types of warrants have ballooned 600 percent in Virginia and 1,200 percent nationwide.

Such wide-reaching warrants have prompted concerns from lawyers and civil liberties advocates. A bill in the New York legislature could be the first to ban the warrants. In the case of the gunfight, the geofence would reveal the identity of motel patrons who were not involved in the case, which a Fairfax County, Va., judge ruled too indiscriminate and said that it violated the constitutional right against unreasonable searches. “The innocent motel patrons uninvolved in the shooting have constitutional privacy interests in their location,” said Judge David Oblon. “To search them, police must persuade the Court there is probable cause to do so.”