Rethinking Reverse Location Search Warrants

Mohit Rathi | August 18, 2021

The conflict between personal liberty and collective security has challenged Americans throughout the ages. The reverse location search warrant, which provides police officers with the ability to access location information on every smartphone that passes within a certain radius around a crime scene, is the newest chapter in this conflict. This technology is relatively new, but it is slowly being adopted by technologically savvy police departments across the country. While the reverse location search warrant could help officers catch and prevent crimes, the technology comes at the cost of providing police departments with unprecedented access to the location information of individuals that might not have otherwise satisfied traditional probable cause as required by the Fourth Amendment. This Comment first seeks to provide a high-level explanation of the reverse location search warrant, including the process by which this type of warrant is served to judges. It then discusses the role of Google, the primary provider of location information, in cooperating with law enforcement. Next, it outlines the technical and constitutional concerns created through the use of reverse location search warrants, specifically addressing concerns around the accuracy of Google’s location information data, judges’ ability to meaningfully review these warrants, and potential Fourth Amendment challenges that reverse location search warrants might face. It next discusses the benefits that reverse location search warrants might provide to police departments across the country, including connecting otherwise seemingly disparate crimes and providing defense attorneys with location information they can use to protect their clients. Finally, this Comment proposes that the judiciary create an emergency exception to the probable cause framework in order to analyze reverse location search warrants. This exception is necessary because these search warrants raise unique technological and constitutional issues that are difficult to analyze under the probable cause framework. Alternatively, this Comment provides three common-sense legislative solutions which, if adopted, would help limit the privacy impact that reverse location search warrants could have on citizens across the country.