Geofence Warrants – Be Specific in Time, Location and Scope of What You’re Seeking
To be lawful, search warrants must establish probable cause for the requested search while not being overly broad. A warrant must also be particular in time, location and scope. To survive a motion to traverse, a warrant affidavit must not include any material falsehoods or make any material omissions.
Absent some reason for an investigator to believe a geofence warrant is invalid, good faith will generally allow for the admission in court of the resulting evidence even if the warrant is legally deficient.
The California Electronic Communications Privacy Act (CalECPA) applies to geofence warrants. Pursuant to CalECPA, notice of the existence of a geofence warrant must be provided to the target of an investigation. Notice may be delayed where such notice would have an adverse result upon a continuing investigation. Failure to seek extensions of such notice may be excused, however, where it is apparent that the magistrate would have granted such a request.
On Oct. 29, 2019, Jovany R. was home with his brother, Samuel R., and a friend in Jarupa Valley, Riverside County, when someone rang the front doorbell. Jovany R. answered the door, went outside and spoke with the person on the front porch. When he came back inside, he said the person claimed to be having car problems. After retrieving jumper cables and a charging box from his bedroom, Jovany R. went back outside. Samuel R. – concerned about home invasion robberies for reasons explained below – followed him. On the front porch, the brothers were suddenly confronted by two males, at least one of whom was armed with a pistol. One of the males commanded the brothers not to move. Despite the warning, Samuel R. attempted to push Jovany R. back into the house. As he did so, one of the two males shot Jovany R. in the leg, back and head, killing him. Fleeing the scene, at least one of the two males got into a silver vehicle parked nearby. Jovany R. was later determined to be armed himself, but never had the chance to use his weapon. Six .45-caliber shells were recovered from the scene.
There was some inference that the brothers had been selling marijuana from their home, although Samuel R. denied this, telling police that any marijuana in the house was intended for personal and medicinal use only.
Nevertheless, it was suspected by investigators that the murder was the result of an attempted drug rip-off, based on the large quantity of marijuana found in the house and because Samuel R. and Jovany R. had a social media account in which it appeared that they were advertising marijuana for sale. Neither suspect had been seen in possession of a cellphone (an issue later in court, as noted below).
Investigators had no idea who the culprits were. However, surveillance video recordings were obtained from a gas station located less than a half a mile east of the victims’ house, showing a silver car heading east shortly after the shooting.
Riverside County sheriff’s investigator Ryan Deanne led the investigation. He drafted a geofence warrant with supporting affidavit requesting from Google the identity of any electronic devices, including smartphones, that Google was tracking and that were located inside a specific “geofence” (explained below) at or around the time of the murder.
The geofence for the warrant was limited to the front yard of Jovany R.’s house, including the front porch area where the shooting occurred and the street in front of the house for two house-lengths in each direction, between 10 p.m. and 10:22 p.m., on the day of the murder.
Deanne went to Google because Google tracks the locations of smartphones and other devices that use at least one Google application (e.g., Google Maps), regardless of whether the device runs on the Google-supported Android or Apple-supported (iOS) operating systems.
Google does not track device locations while the device is turned off, but a Google application itself does not have to be running at the time to allow Google to track the device.
In the case decision, the court describes in detail (pages 27-28, a description every investigator who attempts a geofence warrant needs to read) Google’s three-stage protocol for releasing information on smartphones found to be within the geofence area during the relevant time period and along the route that those phones are shown to have taken – in this case, from the victims’ house to the nearby gas station, where video showed the silver car passing.
The phones tracked can be limited to those used by the suspects within the relevant time period.
This process led to the defendant, Ahmad Raheem Price, being identified as the owner of one of the cellphones found to be within the geofence area at the time of the shooting. A subsequent records check showed that the defendant had been involved in a traffic collision some days after the murder while driving a silver 2017 Ford Fusion that appeared to be the same car shown in the gas station video. Samuel R. was unable to identify the defendant from a photo lineup, but Deanne learned that West Covina police had arrested Price for unlawfully possessing a .45-caliber handgun (the defendant being a felon on parole) two and a half months after the murder – the same caliber as the six shell casings found at the scene of the shooting. Ballistics testing determined that the shell casings matched those fired from the defendant’s gun.
A second warrant was obtained from AT&T, the carrier for the cellphone shown via the geofence warrant to be at the scene of the murder. This warrant verified that the defendant was in fact the owner of the cellphone during the relevant time periods.
Based upon all this, the defendant was arrested in December, 2020. Upon arrest, the defendant was provided with notice of the existence of the geofence warrant and the evidence retrieved as a result. The defendant was charged in state court with murder, robbery-murder with special-circumstance enhancements and other charges.
The defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence (pursuant to P.C. § 1538.5) obtained via the geofence warrant and other subsequent warrants was denied by the preliminary hearing magistrate. His renewed motion at the trial court level (pursuant to P.C. § 995) was similarly denied, other than to dismiss the robbery-murder special-circumstance allegation for reasons that were not discussed. Price appealed these rulings pretrial.