Two men imprisoned for killing a California gas station manager are trying to get their cases overturned by arguing that Los Angeles County investigators broke the law when they had Google scour location data for millions of devices in search of potential suspects.
The appeal is part of a growing attempt by defense lawyers and privacy advocates to curtail police use of geofence warrants, an investigative tool powered by the public’s reliance on phones that track their movements.
Driving the resistance is concern that the warrants give police too much discretion in deciding where to search and whose movements seem suspicious. Opponents say the warrants violate the U.S. Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches by combing through the location data of innocent Google users in search of possible suspects. They also point to cases in which geofence warrants led police to the wrong people: a bicyclist swept into a burglary investigation, a warehouse worker mistakenly charged with murder.
“It’s really unlimited in how they can be used, and that’s what we are concerned about,” said Jennifer Lynch, the surveillance litigation director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group that filed a brief Tuesday supporting the appeal of the two men in the killing of the Los Angeles County gas station manager.
Geofence warrants, which compel Google to provide a list of devices whose location histories indicate they were near a crime scene, are used thousands of times a year by American law enforcement agencies, helping them solve murders, arsons, burglaries, sexual assaults, home invasions and many other crimes — including the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The warrants are typically sealed by a judge until after a suspect has been arrested.
Police and prosecutors say geofence warrants are legal because they are signed by judges or magistrates and are limited to circumstances when investigators have strong reason to believe they will find the culprits.
The California challenge, filed with the state’s 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles, involves the March 1, 2019, shooting death of Abdalla Thabet, 38, who managed gas stations owned by his uncle, according to court documents. After he collected money from the businesses, Thabet drove to a Bank of America branch in the city of Paramount. Two cars pulled up behind him. The driver of one shot him, and the driver of the other took his…