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Google address search at the center of Colorado Supreme Court case

The court will decide whether Denver police violated teenagers' rights when they investigated Google keyword searches to make an arrest in a crime.
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Posted at 12:53 PM, May 04, 2023

The Colorado Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday about a Google keyword search the Denver Police Department used to track down the suspects involved in a house fire that killed a Senegalese family of five in 2020.

About half a year after the deadly fire, in late January 2021, authorities arrested three teens in connection with the crime. The trio incorrectly thought one of their phones, which had been stolen, was in the home, according to an arrest affidavit.

In the digital dragnet, Denver police officers looked at who searched the home's address before the fire, which led investigators to the teens. 

“The way this search worked is that Google was asked to provide to law enforcement every single person — maybe in Colorado, but it looks like probably in the world — who searched for, either in the Google app itself or in Google maps, for a particular address," explained Ian Farrell, associate professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law. 

Now, the Colorado Supreme Court will determine if the search was legal or if it violated the suspects' Fourth Amendment rights which protect them from unreasonable searches and seizures. 

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“It’s a fascinating case,” said Farrell. “The argument from the defendants is that because the information was obtained in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, the judge made an error in allowing that to be presented. It’s a classic example of the challenges that are faced when you have a document that was written in the 1780s and [1790s] and you’re trying to apply it to digital technology.”

Many legal experts believe this is a case that could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Keyword warrants are just so brand new,” said Denise Mowder, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “We’re getting a warrant for some history. We don’t know who, and we’re hoping the history will lead us to a person.”

“The reason they’re called reverse searches is that with normal searches, you have an individual as a suspect and you’re trying to find out information about that individual,” Farrell said. “With reverse searches, you have information that you’re hoping leads to a suspect.”

One of the suspects in the case entered into a plea deal and was sentenced to seven years in prison. 

The cases for the other two suspects are dependent on the outcome of the case being heard in the Colorado Supreme Court.

This story was originally published by Russell Haythorn on denver7.com.