August 10, 2020

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

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.
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