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Federal Agents Are Using A Reverse Warrant To Track Down Arson Suspects

from the starting-with-what-we-don't-know-and-working-our-way-backwards dept

Reverse warrants have been deployed again. And, again, Wisconsin law enforcement agencies are involved. The feds used a reverse warrant to track down robbers who hit a bank at a strip mall just outside of Milwaukee earlier this year.

The feds are at it again. This time it's the ATF and the targets are two people suspected of arson.

The "reverse" warrant affidavit [PDF] spends a great deal of time letting us know what Special Agent Thomas Greenwich knows: that phones generate a ton of location info using a variety of connections (WiFi, Bluetooth, cell towers) and this information tends to get hoovered up almost immediately by service providers. In this instance the target is Google and the ATF wants any records that fall within two geofenced areas surrounding the sites of two suspicious fires.

If there's any upside here, it's that the geofenced locations won't be sweeping in as many non-suspects as other reverse warrants we've seen. And it includes photos depicting the areas targeted by the non-targeted warrant, which helps judges (and interested citizens) see how much potential data the ATF is targeting.

There were two suspected arsons in Milwaukee, located less than 5 miles apart, occurring within three weeks of each other. Both started at the back of the houses and both used accelerants. And both houses had a common denominator: John P. Hunt. Hunt had been evicted from one address (4047 N. 7th) two weeks prior to the first fire, and had been trying to claim tools left behind by a deceased family member, which were stored at the second address (5915 N. 42nd St.). This included one unscheduled visit to reclaim the disputed possessions which had been sorted out by local law enforcement four days before the second suspicious fire.

Here are the geofence coordinates included with the affidavit:

The geofences here are about as limited as they can be, given the nature of the crime. These are much more constrained than others we've seen -- ones that cover entire blocks in heavily-trafficked areas.

That being said, there are still a few problems. First, coarse location data isn't precise enough to exclude people living in surrounding houses. The geofenced areas will also capture foot and road traffic that passed through the area during the time frame investigators are looking at.

Finally, there's the problem that simply does not ever go away, no matter how tightly-constrained the geofence is: these warrants work in reverse, providing law enforcement with location data on people who aren't suspected of committing criminal acts and allowing investigators to use a pile of non-suspicious data to develop reasonable suspicion.

This data request seems almost extraneous. The ATF already appears to have a couple of suspects -- ones well-known to both federal agents and the Milwaukee Police Department. The MPD executed a search warrant at the 4047 N. 7th Street address last summer (following "10-15 visits" to the house by MPD officers during that same summer), recovering "a large amount of narcotics and several firearms." John Hunt -- the person connecting the two torched properties -- was charged with several drug and gun-related offenses.

Given this fact, it would seem investigators might want to start with John Hunt and then work their way outward if that doesn't pan out. Instead, they're demanding location info on everyone in the area and then hoping to narrow this list of info down to the person (or people) they already suspect. Yes, it's always useful to have as much evidence in hand as possible before arresting someone, but that law enforcement desire needs to be weighed against the impact it will have on non-suspects just because they happened to connect to cell towers in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Filed Under: arson, atf, reverse warrants
Companies: google


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2020 @ 11:03am

    Pretty soon, law enforcement is going to have a REAL going dark problem as criminals start leaving their phones at home.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    ECA (profile), 8 Jan 2020 @ 11:36am

    "start with John Hunt and then work their way outward "

    Really?
    Even if there is nothing to show he did it, and that his Phone was caught in the area, tho he may be living near by.

    How many have been railroaded into admitting, wrongly, that they did it, for a lower Judgement.. Just to be left alone.

    Just for instance:
    Lets say some random person did this. but lives out of this area. How could you tell?
    I wouldnt mind Anonymous, data sharing, and seeing that a certain Phone was in that area, and then ask the Judge to have it Identified. Then go after the Few Phones and owners, that were selected.

    I dont mind cops getting abit smart. But how to Point at 1 person with no Data/info/anything, is abit lazy. Aim at the group, and try to nail abit of info about what May have happened.
    A few Cameras, in the Open public places, not residential(without warrant) is a nice idea. Iv even heard that they are using Sound receivers to pick up area noise to figure out where things are happening.
    Its nice to think.. That cops might stop things from happening, or going to Far, but that only works If they can Know whats going on. And the way things are, 1 Cop per 10,000 people isnt enough.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2020 @ 12:28pm

    Re: "start with John Hunt and then work their way outward "

    But how to Point at 1 person with no Data/info/anything,

    Try reading the article, Hunt has a motive for the Arson, like eviction from one address, and police involvement when trying to reclaim property from the other address.

    What is more surprising is that police did not use the available information to obtain location records for Hunts phone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 8 Jan 2020 @ 2:13pm

    Peculiar particularity

    "Amendment 4 - Search and Seizure. Ratified 12/15/1791.

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

    With certainty that this has been mentioned before, someplace, sometime, in this blog's comments, how the hell do judges agree to warrants that have such a lack of particularity when so many others may be included in the reverse warrant process? While they might be particular in terms of what they are looking for, the tendency to not know who is a peculiar aspect of the 'reverse' warrant (who do they intend to seize or is it just a fishing expedition?). To my layman's eyes it doesn't, which brings to question the capability/motive of those judges who do.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 8 Jan 2020 @ 3:56pm

    Re: Peculiar particularity

    Same explanation for why they've given stingray use a pass in the past, spineless and/or cowardice. Rather than tell someone with a badge 'no' and risk being painted as 'soft on crime' they give it the okay, assured with a pinky-promise that those constitutional violation would only ever be used against Bad Guys, which doesn't count.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 8 Jan 2020 @ 4:00pm

    So, that work the other way? No? Can't imagine why...

    I'd love to see how the departments using tactics like this would respond to turnabout, as I am dead certain they would never accept the same logic used against them.

    'We think one of your officers is corrupt, so give us data on all of them and we'll narrow it down to check. Don't worry about us seeing something sensitive or be concerned about privacy, we promise we'll only keep the stuff relevant to our concern and will totally ignore everything else.'

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    ECA (profile), 8 Jan 2020 @ 4:12pm

    Re: Re: "start with John Hunt and then work their way outward "

    read it..
    And if you do a case, you should look at everyone around the point of interest..
    Or go ahead and Put him in jail, but get him to Admit to a lower crime so he wont be inside long. as MOST of recent history has been doing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    Code Monkey (profile), 8 Jan 2020 @ 5:27pm

    Why can't they just ask....

    ...for a warrant to search John Hunt's phone data/location on the dates of the fire? Wouldn't that put him right at that location at the time of the fire???

    SOMETHING must make them think he started the fires...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    BentFranklin (profile), 8 Jan 2020 @ 8:41pm

    Seems to me like it would be possible, for such a limited area, to simply ask for permission from all affected landowners to perform the reverse search. If they got everyone to agree, no harm no foul.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Smartassicus the Roman, 8 Jan 2020 @ 8:58pm

    Leave it to "law enforcement"

    ...to start with the most obnoxious, complicated, and probably illegal things right out of the gate instead of doing real work related to their jobs.

    FTP.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2020 @ 6:01am

    Re: Peculiar particularity

    While they might be particular in terms of what they are looking for, the tendency to not know who is a peculiar aspect of the 'reverse' warrant

    "Who" implies a person, and the only such reference in that text is "persons…to be seized". It doesn't apply because nobody's being seized. The things being seized are data referencing a particular location. The place to be searched is Google's servers, and this is where it lacks specificity—shouldn't they have to say which datacenter they intend to search? We don't even know which state they're searching in.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2020 @ 6:02am

    Re:

    What do landowners have to do with it? They're unlikely to have kept records of nearby cellular phones. It's Google the warrant is requesting data from.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    BentFranklin (profile), 9 Jan 2020 @ 7:35am

    Re: Re:

    My thinking is it's their privacy that might be violated.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2020 @ 8:47am

    Re: Re: Re: "start with John Hunt and then work their way outwar

    Put him in jail, but get him to Admit to a lower crime so he wont be inside long. as MOST of recent history has been doing.

    Because what's important isn't the actual criminal being caught, it's giving the public yet another person to ostracize.

    Yet more proof that society gets what it deserves: Criminals running free and a corrupt government, all just so society can say "They got what was coming to them. grin"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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