New York, NY Fearing reverse location search warrants could ensnare innocent people, Assemblymember Dan Quart and Senator Zellnor Myrie have introduced legislation (A10246A/S08183) to ban the practice.
Whereas a conventional warrant requires law enforcement to show probable cause to seize or search an individual, a reverse location search warrant allows law enforcement to collect data on everyone in a certain area during a certain time. Then, law enforcement works backward to identify a suspect.
Essentially, what a reverse location search warrant does is allow law enforcement to go on a fishing expedition, said Assemblymember Dan Quart. In a situation like that, criminality can be applied to anyone and thats what makes this kind of warrant particularly insidious.
The practice has raised concerns among privacy activists who argue its unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. Because this type of warrant enables indiscriminate sweeps and provides no guidance on what law enforcement can and cant do with the data once theyve obtained it, it may very well violate the Fourth Amendments prohibition against unreasonable searches.
In a city as dense as New York, a geofence warrant could turn up data on hundreds, if not thousands of people at a single time. When everyone is considered a potential suspect, the chance of wrongful arrest skyrocket.
Thats what happened to Jorge Molina in 2018 when he was wrongfully arrested and jailed for a murder he did not commit. The police relied on location data provided to them by Google on all the phones in the area at the time of the crime. After spending a week in jail, Molina was exonerated of any wrongdoing.
"In recent weeks, people across the world have poured into the streets in protest of police brutality and overenforcement of communities like the ones I represent, said Senator Zellnor Myrie. Yet police around the country are already using reverse warrants, which are nothing more than a tool that would only exacerbate the problem of surveillance and over policing of black and brown communities. Now is the time to limit and restrict the power of police, not expand it, and that is what this bill is about.
So far, there has only been one documented use of this technique in New York City. The Manhattan District Attorney infamously used a reverse search warrant to build a case against the Proud Boys. With police brutality protests ongoing across the five boroughs, privacy activists have once again raised flags about its potential weaponization against protestors.
Reverse search warrants are a dangerous and dystopian technology, and they must be banned, said Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn. Police cant be trusted with the power to track thousands of protesters with a single court order. A court order that okays searches on hundreds or even thousands of individuals undermines the entire purpose of requiring warrants in the first place. The judges approving these orders simply cant know how much data theyre handing over to law enforcement when they approve the request.