DENVER — In a 5 -2 decision, the Colorado Supreme Court on Monday ruled the controversial reverse Google keyword search warrant utilized by the Denver Police Department to track down suspects involved in ahouse fire that killed a Senegalese family of five in Denver's Green Valley Ranch neighborhood in 2020 could be admitted as evidence and remanded “the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
It’s a decision that could have broad implications in how investigators use digital technology to help crack cases beyond this case.
The fire in the 5300 block of N. Truckee Street on August 5, 2020, which investigators suspected started as a result of arson, killed a toddler, child, and three adults. The family had immigrated to Colorado from Senegal.
"We agree with the trial court that the deterrent purpose of the exclusionary rule would not be served by suppressing evidence from a warrant—several iterations of which were approved by two judges—that authorized a relatively new and previously unchallenged investigative technique. At every step, law enforcement acted reasonably to carry out a novel search in a constitutional manner. Suppressing the evidence here wouldn’t deter police misconduct. Thus, we conclude the good-faith exception applies," the ruling continued.
In late January 2021,authorities arrested three teens in connection with the fire: Kevin Bui and Gavin Seymour, were both 16 years old at the time of their arrest, and Dillon Siebert, who was 15 at the time of his arrest. The trio incorrectly thought Bui's stolen iPhone was in the home, according to an arrest affidavit.
As part of its investigation and at issue in the case, DPD officers looked at who searched the home's address before the fire, which led investigators to the teens.
“The way this search worked is that Google was asked to provide to law enforcement every single person — maybe in Colorado, but it looks like probably in the world — who searched for, either in the Google app itself or in Google maps, for a particular address," Ian Farrell, associate professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law, explained to Denver7 reporter Russell Haythorn.
In this case, DPD used the reverse-keyword warrant to obtain from Google a list of Colorado IP addresses that had searched the location of the blaze over a two-week window before the fire happened, the ruling stated.
That digital information was then used by law enforcement to track down and charge three of the suspects.
The Colorado Supreme Court was set to determine if the search was legal or if it violated the suspects' 4th Amendment rights which protect them from unreasonable searches and seizures.
“It’s a fascinating case,” said Farrell. “The argument from the defendants is that because the information was obtained in violation of their 4th Amendment rights, the judge made an error in allowing that to be presented. It’s a classic example of the challenges that are faced when you have a document that was written in the 1780s and [1790s] and you’re trying to apply it to digital technology.”
Many legal experts believe this is a case that could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Keyword warrants are just so brand new,” said Denise Mowder, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “We’re getting a warrant for some history. We don’t know who, and we’re hoping the history will lead us to a person.”
“The reason they’re called reverse searches is that with normal searches, you have an individual as a suspect and you’re trying to find out information about that individual,” Farrell said. “With reverse searches, you have information that you’re hoping leads to a suspect.”
While Colorado's highest court concluded "that law enforcement obtained and executed the warrant in good faith, so the evidence shouldn’t be suppressed under the exclusionary rule," it also stated that the decision should "make no broad proclamation about the propriety of reverse-keyword warrants" and that this specific ruling should not "condone" nor "condemn" future search warrants of this type.
"If dystopian problems emerge, as some fear, the courts stand ready to hear argument regarding how we should rein in law enforcement’s use of rapidly advancing technology. Today, we proceed incrementally based on the facts before us," the opinion read.
Siebertaccepted a plea deal and was sentenced to seven years in district court, as well as a suspended sentence of 26 years should he violate the terms of that sentence, according to Denver District Attorney Beth McCann. He was also sentenced to three years in juvenile court.
Seymour and Bui’s cases hang in the balance as they awaited the Colorado Supreme Court's decision.
Denver District Attorney Beth McCann on Monday afternoon released the following statement:
"“I am very pleased with the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling, which will allow for the continued prosecution of the defendants accused of killing five innocent people in August of 2020. The Court recognized that police officers exercised good faith in obtaining the warrant that led to the identification of the suspects. We agree with that part of the court's opinion and will now move forward with our cases. I want to thank the lawyers in my office whose hard work and thoughtful presentation resulted in today’s opinion.”