Denver police’s reverse keyword search heads to Colorado Supreme Court

The Colorado Supreme Court will review the Denver Police Department’s controversial use of a Google search warrant that led officers to identify and arrest three teenagers in connection with the 2020 arson of a Green Valley Ranch home that killed five family members.

A Denver District Court judge upheld the legality of the reverse-keyword search warrant late last year, but an attorney for Gavin Seymour, one of the teenagers charged in the case, said during a hearing Friday that oral arguments before the state’s highest court are scheduled for May.

The state Supreme Court decided earlier this month to review the ruling on Google search warrant, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization focused on digital privacy and rights, which filed an amicus brief in support of Seymour’s petition.

“This makes it the first state supreme court in the country to address the constitutionality of a keyword warrant,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, also known as EFF, wrote on its website.

Seymour and another defendant, Kevin Bui, have been charged with first-degree murder and dozens of other counts in connection with the fire, which occurred on Aug. 5, 2020, in a home on Truckee Street. A third teenager, who was 15 at the time of the fire, is being prosecuted as a juvenile.

Five Senegalese family members were killed in the fire, including Djibril Diol, 29; Adja Diol, 23; Khadija Diol, 2; Hassan Diol, 25; and 6-month-old Hawa Baye.

Prosecutors have alleged that Bui incorrectly thought the person who stole his phone lived in the Truckee Street home and wanted revenge. The teens bought masks to hide their faces and tossed gasoline inside the home before setting it on fire, law enforcement officials have alleged.

During the months-long police investigation, officers sought a reverse-keyword search warrant to serve on Google to help them find information on anyone who had looked up the address of the house during a 15-day period before the fire. The warrant led officers to Seymour, and then Bui and the third teenager.

Attorneys for Seymour and Bui, who were 16 at the time of the fire, previously challenged the legality of the search, arguing that the warrant was a “massive fishing expedition.” They have also sought to suppress the evidence from Google and from searches of the teenagers’ cellphones and social media accounts.

But Denver District Judge Martin Egelhoff denied their motion during a November hearing, saying that the search warrants were specific, narrow, supported by probable cause and procedurally sound. He also rejected the argument that the search violated people’s right to privacy.

“(We) believe the lower court made an excellent and detailed ruling, which we support and will be defending,” said Carolyn Tyler, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney’s Office, on Friday.

Seymour’s petition calls the reverse-keyword search warrant “a digital dragnet of immense proportions” and asks the state Supreme Court to rule on whether it violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Colorado Consitution.

Officers’ final keyword warrant in the case “authorized a Fourth Amendment search. It was a search because it violated Mr. Seymour’s reasonable expectation of privacy in his Google search query history and because it infringed on Mr. Seymour’s property rights in his Google account data,” according to the petition.

The EFF filed a brief in the case because it believes the ruling could have implications for the general public, said Jennifer Lynch, the nonprofit’s surveillance litigation director.

“Typically in a criminal case, the rights of the defendants are being addressed, but sometimes courts don’t have the broader picture, the broader ramifications of a ruling in a case,” she said, adding, “All of us use search engines every single day.”

Oral arguments before the state Supreme Court will be held at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction on May 4, according to court documents.

Seymour and Bui both appeared in Denver District Court on Friday, but their cases were postponed until May 26 due to the pending Supreme Court review.

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