• Federal
  • State
  • Municipal

Kansas court case could have implications for cellphone privacy

Judge in the case did leave open the possibility that law enforcement could narrow its search

KMBC Updated: 8:09 PM CDT Jun 23, 2021 Infinite Scroll Enabled Matt Flener KMBC 9 News Investigative Reporter

KANSAS CITY, Kan. —

A Kansas federal judge earlier this month shot down a request by a law enforcement agency to obtain a “geofence” search warrant demanding Google hand over location data from cellphones.

The law enforcement agency wanted the location data from all phones near a building where a federal crime allegedly occurred. https://7b7694c1ec1baeab0e537c460abfdeac.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html#xpc=sf-gdn-exp-2&p=https%3A//www.kmbc.com Advertisement

Investigators had surveillance video, but not a suspect name, according to court paperwork uncovered by KMBC 9 Investigates.

Magistrate Judge Angel Mitchell, of Topeka, ruled the law enforcement agency did not prove the suspect had a cellphone. Mitchell also said the agency did not fully explain the reason for requesting an hour’s worth of location data from Google near the building. She left open the possibility the agency could narrowly tailor the geofence request. The judge did not name the agency due to the ongoing investigation.

Click here to see the case.

The new case could have big implications for what remains private on your cellphone.

“We haven’t seen these technological advances until now,” said defense attorney John Picerno.

Picerno just learned about the case this week.

The judge ruled the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protecting citizens against unreasonable search and seizure requires much more detail from the government regarding geofence search warrants to not invade privacy.

“That’s what the Fourth Amendment is designed to protect,” Picerno said. “The government shouldn’t know where you were and what you were doing unless they have a specific reason to believe that you participated in a crime.”

The judge said she could not find more than a handful of cases that addressed the Fourth Amendment’s limitations on geofence warrants.

Dr. Ken Novak, a criminal justice and criminology professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said he also learned about the case this week.

“There are too many different people, innocent people, who would have their information and data captured by the government,” Novak said after reviewing details of the case. “The risk wasn’t worth the reward.”

Novak said the information could be very beneficial to law enforcement, but the judge had to consider privacy versus safety.

“Judges are asked to weigh the pros and cons associated with any governmental search, using the Constitution as a guideline,” he said. “Rulings like this may make it more difficult for the government to investigate and prosecute crimes, but it preserves the privacy of many innocent people.”