Va. case focusing debate on constitutionality of ‘geofence’ warrant ends with guilty plea

After more than two years of litigation in state and federal courts regarding the constitutionality of geofence warrants — which opponents consider a digital dragnet — a federal bank robbery case in Virginia has ended with a guilty plea.

Okello Chatrie pleaded guilty Monday to armed robbery and use of a firearm in the Eastern District of Virginia, and will be sentenced Aug. 2.

The case drew national attention because of how police caught Chatrie: using a geofence warrant to obtain Google location records from 19 cellphones that were near the bank at the time of the robbery as a way to hone in possible suspects.

The use of the technology has been decried by privacy critics as an infringement on the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

In fact, in Chatrie’s case, Judge Hannah Lauck ruled the geofence warrant used to find him was unconstitutional, because it failed to establish probable cause to search each of the 19 people within the targeted area. However, the judge declined the defense’s motion to suppress the information gleaned from the warrant.

The Chesterfield County police detective sought from a magistrate, and was granted, a geofence search warrant seeking location information from Google for any devices within a 150-meter radius of the Richmond-area bank.

In her 63-page ruling in March, Lauck said the detective showed good faith in applying for a geofence warrant, but the legality of the technique, in general, is unclear.

“Despite the Court finding good faith here, the Court nonetheless strongly cautions that this exception may not carry the day in the future,” Lauck wrote. “This Court will not simply rubber stamp geofence warrants.”

“If the Government is to continue to employ these warrants, it must take care to establish particularized probable cause,” she wrote. “As the legal landscape confronts newly developed technology and further illuminates Fourth Amendment rights in the face of geofence practices, future geofence warrants may require additional efforts to seek court approval,” before they are granted.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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