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Man pleads guilty in case testing use of geofence warrant

(AP) A Richmond man has pleaded guilty to federal bank robbery charges in a closely watched case that tested the constitutionality of broad search warrants that use Google location history to find people who were near crime scenes.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports Okello Chatrie pleaded guilty Monday to armed robbery and use of a firearm in the 2019 robbery of the Call Federal Credit Union in Midlothian.

Chatrie’s lawyers argued the use of a “geofence warrant” to identify people who were near the scene of the robbery violated their constitutional protection against unreasonable searches. Federal prosecutors argued Chatrie had no reasonable expectation of privacy since he voluntarily opted in to Google’s Location History.

U.S. District Judge M. Hannah Lauck ruled in March that the warrant violated the Constitution by gathering the location history of people near the bank without having any evidence they had anything to do with the robbery. Geofence warrants seek location data on every person within a specific location over a certain period of time.

“The warrant simply did not include any facts to establish probable cause to collect such broad and intrusive data from each of these individuals,” Lauck wrote in her ruling.

Privacy advocates said the ruling — believed to be the first time a federal district court judge has ruled on the constitutionality of a geofence warrant — could make it more difficult for police to continue using a popular investigative technique that has helped lead them to suspects in a list of crimes around the country.

Lauck’s ruling did not help Chatrie because she denied his motion to suppress the evidence produced by the warrant, finding the detective had acted in good faith by consulting with prosecutors before applying for the warrant and relied on his past experience in obtaining three similar warrants.

The judge said she was not ruling on whether geofence warrants can ever satisfy the Fourth Amendment. She urged legislative action on the issue, noting there is currently no law prohibiting Google and other companies from collecting and using vast amounts of data from their customers.

In a legal brief filed in the case, Google said geofence requests jumped 1,500% from 2017 to 2018, and another 500% from 2018 to 2019. Google now reports that geofence warrants make up more than 25% of all the warrants Google receives in the U.S., the judge wrote in her ruling.

Chatrie’s lawyers did not immediately respond to an emailed request seeking comment on his guilty plea.

Lauck scheduled sentencing for Aug. 2. In a plea agreement, prosecutors have agreed they will not argue for a sentence above nearly 13 years in prison, while Chatrie’s lawyers have agreed to argue for no less than just under 11 years.

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