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Colorado Supreme Court to hear arguments about Google keyword search that led Denver PD to arson suspects

Colorado Supreme Court to hear Google keyword search case
Posted at 8:41 PM, May 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-04 16:42:04-04

DENVER — The Colorado Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday about the Google keyword search the Denver Police Department used to track down the suspects involved in a house fire that killed a Senegalese family of five in Denver's Green Valley Ranch neighborhood in 2020.

The fire was reported around 2:40 a.m. on Aug. 5, 2020 along the 5300 block of N. Truckee Street. Later that day, the Denver Fire Department confirmed a toddler, child, and three adults had died and investigators suspected arson. The family had immigrated to Colorado from Senegal.

About half a year after the deadly fire, in late January 2021, authorities arrested three teens in connection with the crime: Kevin Bui and Gavin Seymour, 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.

In the digital dragnet, Denver police 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," explained Ian Farrell, associate professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law.

Now, the Colorado Supreme Court will 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.”

Siebert accepted 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 await the Colorado Supreme Court's decision.

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