In the 21st century you can’t watch a single episode of a true crime documentary without cellular triangulation being referenced. Every time I hear the narrator say “cell phone logs tell a different story” I just laugh to myself. I again ask myself whether the fact that criminals bring their cell phones with them is due to ignorance or arrogance. Two recent prominent cases that highlighted just how damning cell phone and surveillance footage can be. In the Massachusetts murder case, the accused husband was seen on surveillance footage buying $450 worth of evidence that might implicate him in the murder, as well as a cell tower ping that puts him near dumpsters where further evidence was recovered. In the recent Idaho murders case, the suspect’s cell phone records showed multiple visits to the scene of the crimes, typically late in the evening. Obviously these circumstantial instances of evidence are not enough to convict alone, but they are incredibly shortsighted mistakes that will hopefully lead to a conviction.
Wrong place, wrong time?
Obviously, we often celebrate the use of this technology when it busts a criminal’s false alibi and helps put them behind bars. But what if you just happened to be unknowingly in the vicinity of a crime taking place? This exact scenario, while seeming far fetched, has happened numerous times and has put innocent people behind bars. This is called a geofence warrant, and they are very controversial.
A geofence warrant is a type of search warrant that allows law enforcement to collect location data from mobile devices in a specific geographic area. This type of warrant is used to track and identify individuals who may have been in the vicinity of a crime scene or other location of interest. The data collected can include the location, movement, and identifying information of the devices, and is typically used as evidence in criminal investigations.
Geofence warrants can be controversial for a number of reasons. One concern is that they may be used to collect location data from a large number of individuals who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. This can raise issues related to privacy and civil liberties, as people may feel that their movements and personal information are being tracked without their knowledge or consent. Additionally, geofence warrants may disproportionately affect certain communities, such as those living in low-income or marginalized neighborhoods where crimes are more likely to occur. Another concern is the accuracy of the data collected via geofence warrant, as it may not be able to differentiate between multiple people in the same location or devices that are not associated with individuals.
There are also debates about the constitutionality of the warrant, with some arguing that it may violate the Fourth Amendment which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.