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Suspect: Cops Illegally Got My Phone Data—and Maybe Yours

Okello Chatrie is not alone in raising concerns about geofence warrants
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 21, 2019 11:48 AM CST
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Okello Chatrie   (Chesterfield County Police Department)

(Newser) – Authorities accessed the cellphone location data of 19 people in the vicinity of a Virginia bank heist before closing in on their suspect, who's claiming the act was illegal. Lawyers for 24-year-old Okello Chatrie of Richmond, who has pleaded not guilty to stealing $195,000 in the armed robbery, say the information gained from the geofence warrant for Google location data violated the privacy of people "just because they were in the area," per NBC News. Police accessed the data only when the culprit, seen talking on a cellphone in the lead-up to the May heist at Midlothian's Call Federal Credit Union, still hadn't been identified after three weeks. Chatrie's lawyers say it's "the digital equivalent of searching every home in the neighborhood of a reported burglary, or searching the bags of every person walking along Broadway because of a theft in Times Square."

Prosecutors say the search was legal because Chatrie had allowed location tracking via his phone. They also say police accessed "a remarkably limited and focused set of records" that meant the personal information of those unconnected with the heist was safe. But "Americans shouldn't have to rely on closed-door negotiations between a private company and a prosecutor to protect their data," says ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler. "We need a court to step in to make sure rules are set so we don't end up in a society where police can get access to a lot of bystanders' information in the course of looking for a guilty person." Chatrie's lawyers note the warrant covered all devices using Google software within 150 meters of the bank—an area including a church—over roughly two hours. WTVR reported the suspect had been seen running toward the church. (Read more privacy stories.)

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