The Colorado Supreme Court has upheld a controversial search warrant used by Denver police to identify the teenagers accused of a fatal house fire three years ago. In a 5-2 decision, the court found that the police acted in good faith when they obtained a reverse keyword search warrant, which required Google to provide account information for users who searched specific keywords within a particular time frame. The warrant allowed authorities to identify the teenagers now facing first-degree murder charges for setting the fire in Green Valley Ranch.
While the court acknowledged potential flaws in the warrant’s probable cause, it determined that the evidence obtained through the warrant would still be admissible in court due to the police’s good faith. The majority opinion emphasized that the ruling does not make a broad statement about the overall propriety of reverse keyword warrants, leaving room for future discussions on law enforcement’s use of rapidly advancing technology.
Chief Justice Brian Boatright and Justices Richard Gabriel and Melissa Hart joined Justice William Hood in the majority opinion. Justice Maria Berkenkotter concurred with the judgment only, while Justices Monica Márquez and Carlos Samour dissented. The dissenting justices argued that the warrant was unconstitutional and expressed concerns about the broad authorization it gives to future use of reverse keyword search warrants.
The decision paves the way for the criminal charges against Kevin Bui and Gavin Seymour, both 19 years old, to proceed. The teenagers, who were 16 at the time of the incident, are accused of setting fire to a home in retaliation for a stolen cellphone. The blaze claimed the lives of five family members, including an infant and a toddler.
The search warrant in question was issued to Google, requesting a list of users who had searched for the home’s address in the 15 days leading up to the fire. The information provided by Google led to the identification of the three teenagers involved. The third teenager, who was 14 at the time, has already been sentenced to 10 years of detention.
The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision comes after a five-month delay in the case. While the court acknowledged potential issues with the warrant’s probable cause, it ultimately determined that the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applies in this case, allowing the evidence to be admitted.
The court’s ruling also recognized that Coloradans have a constitutionally-protected privacy interest in their Google search histories. However, it did not delve into the specific requirements for probable cause in searches of such data.
The decision sets a precedent for the use of reverse keyword search warrants in Colorado, but the court remains open to future arguments on how law enforcement’s use of rapidly advancing technology should be regulated.