A geofence search warrant must particularly describe the thing or place to be searched and the property
To be in compliance with the Fourth Amendment, a search warrant must reflect sufficient probable cause, particularly describing the thing or place to be searched and the property to be seized. The breath of a search warrant application must be limited in scope to those items for which there is probable cause to be seized. Geofence warrants are lawful so long as in compliance with these rules, and while limiting an investigator’s unfettered discretion in deciding whose electronic device to search.
Adbadalla Thabet was tasked with the twice-a-week collection of cash receipts from several of his uncle’s gas stations and depositing those proceeds in a bank in Paramount; a suburb of Los Angeles. Surveillance footage collected at various sites (later viewed by investigators of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department) showed that Thabet left his apartment building in Downey at around 7 a.m. on the morning of March 1, 2019, and drove to one of his uncle’s gas stations in Downey to pick up cash proceeds for deposit.
After remaining there for about 15 minutes, he left that gas station at 7:30 a.m. and drove to a second gas station in Bellflower where, at about 9:00 a.m., he met with his brother-in-law. Thabet left this gas station at 9:40 and made a brief stop at a strip mall where he and his brother-in-law inspected some possible income property before Thabet drove to a gas station in Lynwood to pick up the cash receipts from that station.
Thabet drove to the bank in Paramount where surveillance video showed him driving into the parking lot at about 10:30 a.m. That same video showed that he was followed into the parking lot by two other vehicles; a gray and a red sedan. The occupants of the gray and red sedans were observed contacting each other; the driver of the red car having gotten out of his vehicle. The gray car then drove slowly towards Thabet’s parked car while the driver of the red car followed on foot. As Thabet got out of his vehicle, the gray car pulled up next to him. An occupant of that car shot Thabet in the torso, leaving him on the ground as the driver sped away.
The driver of the red car (still on foot) then walked up to Thabet’s body, picked up his backpack containing the gas station receipts, walked back to the red car, and drove away. Thabet died of his injuries. Video surveillance later obtained from the gas stations Thabet had visited that morning showed the same two vehicles at two of those locations leading investigators to the conclusion that they had been following Thabet. The license plate numbers of those two cars, however, were not legible in any of the footage.
In the subsequent investigation, Sheriff’s investigators resorted to what is commonly called a “geofence warrant.” As the preliminary step in obtaining such a warrant, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Detective Jonathan Bailey (assisted by Romy Haas; a crime analyst for the Sheriff's Department) applied for a search warrant directing Google to identify individuals whose location history data indicated that they were in the vicinity of the same six locations visited by Thabet on the morning of March 1st, including Thabet’s apartment.
In the affidavit supporting the warrant application, Detective Bailey described Thabet's murder as seen on the surveillance footage of the bank parking lot. He further stated that he had viewed surveillance camera footage from several of the other locations Thabet had visited that morning and had seen the gray and red sedans in some of that footage. In the affidavit, Detective Bailey provided a brief overview of the procedures used by Google to track and store location history data, explaining how Google collects data through “Global Position System (GPS) data, cell site/cell tower information, Bluetooth connections, and Wi-Fi access points.” Of significance here, Detective Bailey also included the following in his affidavit: “I know most people in today’s society possess cellular phones and other items (e.g. tablets, watches, laptops) used to communicate electronically. . . . Most people carry cellular phones on their person and will carry them whenever they leave their place of residence.”
In addition, Detective Bailey explained that “(s)uspects involved in criminal activity will typically use cellular phones to communicate when multiple suspects are involved.” Therefore, he concluded, identification of individuals in Thabet's vicinity on the day of the murder would assist investigators in locating the drivers of the vehicles involved in the murder, and who investigators believed had been following Thabet throughout the morning.
The warrant application sought location history data from Google for individuals within six target locations; Thabet’s apartment, the three gas stations he’d visited, the strip mall Thabet and his brother-in-law had stopped at, and the bank in Paramount. The description of each location included either circular or rectangular geographical parameters around the individual locations along with specified time parameters in the middle of which it was known that Thabet (and thus, presumably, the red and gray sedans) had been.
The obtaining of such a warrant (commonly referred to as a “geofence” warrant; AKA; “reverse location” warrant) involves a three-step process. At step one, Google was directed to search location history data for the six designated locations and times, within the parameters as described, and produce an anonymized list of cellphone or similar devices (e.g., iPads, etc.) found within the search areas in the designated timeframes, including the individual times each device was recorded in the search area during the applicable time period. At step two, law enforcement is to review the anonymized list of devices “to remove devices that are not relevant to the investigation, for example, devices that were not in the location for a sufficient period of time.” Law enforcement has the option at this point of requesting that Google provide additional location history information for each identified device even if that information fell outside of the initial geographic and temporal search parameters. At step three, law enforcement would then request identifying information from Google for all devices law enforcement deemed, at the investigator’s discretion, relevant to the investigation based primarily on the number of times a device was noted to be within the targeted locations and time periods. The warrant directed Google to provide this identifying information, as selected by the investigator, without additional legal process.
A Los Angeles superior court judge, acting as a magistrate, signed the geofence search warrant on March 21st. Detective Bailey (with the assistance of the Sheriff’s Crime Analyst Haas) reviewed the anonymized data provided by Google and whittled it down to eight devices that had been at more than just one of the relevant locations, and within the timeframes as provided, on the morning of March 1st.
At Crime Analyst Haas’ request, Google provided the corresponding e-mail addresses for all eight of the identified devices. Detective Bailey and Crime Analyst Haas then drafted additional search warrants related to two of those e-mail addresses, which had been identified as being at the relevant times and locations (including the murder scene) four and three times, respectively.
This information eventually led to the identification of defendants Meza and Meneses as the two people observed in the video at the murder scene. Charged in state court with a special circumstance murder, along with other attached sentencing enhancements, both defendants filed a pre-trial motion pursuant to Pen. Code § 1538.5 to quash and suppress the results of the geofence warrant, challenging the legality of the warrant as used in this case. They also alleged that the geofence warrant did not comply with California’s Electronic Communications Privacy Act (Pen. Code §§ 1546 et. seq.), arguing that it did not adequately identify the target individuals or accounts and applications to be searched.
The trial court denied the defendants’ motions. Meza thereafter pled guilty to first degree murder and Meneses pled no contest to second degree murder, receiving 25- and 15-years to life, respectively. Defendants appealed the denial of their motions.