Florida PD's Reverse Warrant Leads To Innocent Man Being Targeted In A Robbery Investigation

from the let-me-ride-my-bike-through-the-wide-open-country-that-I-love dept

Riding your bike while sending out geolocation data is the hot new crime.

Cops are using reverse warrants with increasing frequency, inverting the usual investigation process by demanding info about everyone in a certain area before trimming down the data haul to a list of suspects. It’s sort of like canvassing a neighborhood, except investigators approach companies like Google, rather than people who might have seen something.

The problem with these dragnets is it makes everyone in the area a suspect. The more heavily-trafficked the area is, the more problematic this process is. Reverse warrants have already resulted in innocent people being jailed. This report by NBC News is another cautionary tale — one that involves a man who became a suspect in a robbery just because he wandered into the geofence set up by cops.

The email arrived on a Tuesday afternoon in January, startling Zachary McCoy as he prepared to leave for his job at a restaurant in Gainesville, Florida.

It was from Google’s legal investigations support team, writing to let him know that local police had demanded information related to his Google account. The company said it would release the data unless he went to court and tried to block it. He had just seven days.


In the notice from Google was a case number. McCoy searched for it on the Gainesville Police Department’s website, and found a one-page investigation report on the burglary of an elderly woman’s home 10 months earlier. The crime had occurred less than a mile from the home that McCoy, who had recently earned an associate degree in computer programming, shared with two others.

Now McCoy was even more panicked and confused. He knew he had nothing to do with the break-in ? he’d never even been to the victim’s house ? and didn’t know anyone who might have. And he didn’t have much time to prove it.

This put McCoy in the very uncomfortable position of proving his innocence even before he had even been charged with a crime. Realizing there was a good possibility approaching the department directly would result in his immediate arrest, McCoy hired a lawyer using money given to him by his parents from their savings. His lawyer, Caleb Kenyon, went to court to get the warrant killed.

Kenyon argued that the warrant was unconstitutional because it allowed police to conduct sweeping searches of phone data from untold numbers of people in order to find a single suspect.


“This geofence warrant effectively blindly casts a net backwards in time hoping to ensnare a burglar,” Kenyon wrote. “This concept is akin to the plotline in many a science fiction film featuring a dystopian, fascist government.”

Had McCoy not done this, the Gainesville PD would have continued to view him as the most likely suspect, approaching Google once again to obtain identifying info. McCoy’s daily bike rides took him past the crime scene he never knew was a crime scene. With the warrant being questioned, the Gainesville PD withdrew it, saying statements made in the McCoy’s lawyer’s filings made it clear they were targeting the wrong person.

Imagine how this would have gone for someone without the funds to hire a lawyer… or for any number of people who may feel there’s nothing they can do to prevent cops from obtaining their information from a third party. The novelty of this inverted interpretation of probable cause doesn’t lend itself to simple answers. Clearing your name isn’t as easy as showing up at the cop shop with a reasonable explanation about why your location data is all over the crime scene.

When rounding up the usual suspects means harvesting data on hundreds or thousands of innocent people, the possibility of putting the wrong person in jail increases exponentially. McCoy’s experience may be an outlier, but it won’t be that way for long.

Filed Under: , , , , , , ,
Companies: google

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Florida PD's Reverse Warrant Leads To Innocent Man Being Targeted In A Robbery Investigation”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Bruce C. says:

"McCoy’s experience may be an outlier, but it won’t be that way for long"

Oh, it’ll still be an outlier. But if the use of these geo-fence reverse warrants becomes commonplace and increases (say) 100-fold, the false positives will also increase 100 fold. So they will seem more common, even if the false positives remain as rare outliers on a percentage basis.

bobob says:

Aside from the obvious problem of the police and the "reverse warrant," shouldn’t google be involved in blocking these warrants? It’s google that is tasked with providing the information, so really, the issue is between google and law enforcement. Google is essentially passing the buck here. The person being targeted is essentially doing google’s legal work since it is google that is in control of the information being sought.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

They need to know connection times for billing purposes

These days, with unlimited calling plans, they kind of don’t. They do need to know locations, temporarily, for routing; that would be fixable if people cared enough. (If I access Techdirt from open wi-fi, with a random MAC address, using Tor, basically nobody can link me to that. No reason we can’t do similar on the cell network by adding a zero-knowledge proof of subscribership.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

But how do you phone a friend, or send them a text message if their and your phone numbers are variable? Without an identifier on the network, you would be limited to communicating via servers, like email or IRC, and unless you stay connected to those servers, you have no notification of new messages when they are sent.

pegr says:

So what?

I’m not going to argue whether or not the warrant was good. That’s something else.

But so what if he was a suspect? So they tag him and question him. Even the evidence they got would indicate he just rode by, didn’t stop.

If they were doing there job correctly, they could eliminate him as a suspect without even questioning him. Maybe they had a list of many could-be-suspects. Being investigated because you happen to be in the area when a crime is committed is not really an issue.

Atkray (profile) says:

Re: Re: So what?

You might not of spent the money but most people are mindful of the story (and others like it) from yesterday with this nugget of truth:

"If you don’t want to see six-year-olds cuffed by cops, the solution is simple: DON’T CALL THE COPS."

In this case the cops had already been called and were just looking for an address to drive the SWAT tank to.

If the cops are looking for you, getting a lawyer in between them and yourself very well could save your life.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why do people insist on leaving digital trails everywhere they go? GPS, cell towers, WiFi connections, use of all kinds of social or semi-social apps… I don’t get it. But maybe that’s because I’ve been in tech for decades and I know full well what’s happening when I use electronic devices and services. Half the time I don’t even take my phone with me when I leave the house.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

People want to use mobile devices, and although we’ve long had the technology to hide user locations from a network (onion routing, zero-knowledge proofs, etc.), the cellular network doesn’t support any of that. Every cell tower knows who’s connected and the logs are stored almost forever.

michael says:

This is a BS article, and Techdirt should know it

Nothing in the original article suggests that the guy was a suspect. It’s just as likely that he was wanted as a potential witness, particularly since his location data would have shown that he was near the area BUT DIDN’T STOP.

Techdirt should know better than to run with this sensational bullshit. Yes, these warrants suck; no, nothing IRL implies that this guy was a suspect.

Wyrm (profile) says:

Re: This is a BS article, and Techdirt should know it

I agree that he was probably just short-listed for the next round of data collection. The cops weren’t considering him suspect enough to arrest him (yet?), but they were definitely at the stage of getting the full private data set from Google, so they did consider him suspect him to move that step forward.

This is shown when they mention that "the Gainesville PD withdrew [the request], saying statements made in the McCoy’s lawyer’s filings made it clear they were targeting the wrong person." Problem is that they were moving forward with nothing else than his name being on the list of people "in the neighborhood" when the crime occurred. And they probably have tons of other names in their list, people who probably didn’t consider contesting the request worth the expense for a lawyer. These ones will be investigated to a degree that should be (and probably is) unconstitutional. They’re just not going to make the news.

So, the problem is not that this specific individual was a formal suspect, which he wasn’t (since he was not indicted), but that he was "suspicious enough" by the cop (loose) standards that they could request tons of personal information on him. Without any reasonable evidence that he’s worthy of investigating.

That’s the base definition of a fishing expedition, which is supposed to be illegal.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Being Targeted says:

targeted individuals

Targeted Individuals/ Gang stalking.

I like it: please describe these two concepts concurrently, to combat the police/NSA/Et alphabet agencies more often, and more precisely, for the sake of their (many, many) victims.

You said: "Being Targeted….."

the next step is to call them victims of "gang stalking"

That will be a real revolution.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...