An estimated 50 million homes in the United States contain a smart device such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home. Smart devices are only supposed to record the user’s command and the speaker’s response. Once a request is fulfilled, the “listening” stops. Amazon and Google have not publicly disclosed the exact length of time a device continues recording and can be assumed that they are constantly listening to us.
What if a smart speaker captures the audio of a serious crime? Can Alexa be used as evidence by the police and prosecution at trial?
While law enforcement would have a crucial piece of evidence to incriminate someone at trial if a smart speaker accidentally recorded a violent interaction or illegal request such as “Alexa, how do I bury a body?”, the quandary is what limits should the legal system place on law enforcement access, if any at all? Issues surrounding probable cause, privacy and Fourth Amendment restrictions can all be argued. There is a possibility that the use of these recordings in court can influence criminal trials.
One such example of where this come into play is the case of Timothy Verrill, who is on trial in New Hampshire for a double murder.
Verrill is accused of murdering Christine Sullivan and Jenna Pellegrini after Verrill became suspicious that one of the women was acting as a police informant who was snitching on his criminal activity. An Amazon Echo was located in the home near where the murders took place. Last November, upon a warrant requested by law enforcement, the judge hearing the case ordered Amazon to release hours of audio recordings captured on the device at or near the time of the murders. It is unclear if and to what extent the Amazon recordings will be used in trial as relevant evidence, but having access allows the prosecution the opportunity to review them for potential evidence.
Amazon refused to release the Echo’s recordings to police. This ongoing resistance from tech companies could be a continual conflict between government and law enforcement.
In a similar case, James Bates, an Arkansas man accused of murdering a work friend who was found dead at his home, the police suspected foul play and charged Bates with murder. The police received a warrant for any data recorded on an Echo speaker located in the home. Amazon again refused and Bates agreed to release the Echo recordings. The case against Bates was later dismissed for lack of evidence.
Another example is the case of Richard Dabate, a Connecticut man whose wife’s Fitbit was a key piece of evidence in her murder trial. Dabate was questioned the murder of his wife and told police she was murdered by armed intruders. Data from her Fitbit showed that she was alive and moving hours after Dabate stated she had been murdered.
The use of technology in our daily lives has greatly impacted policing and criminal investigations and will continue to do so. This will grow the debate between privacy versus criminal justice concerns.Judges may face a dilemma in deciding how easy or difficult it should be for law enforcement to access recordings on these personal gadgets. Police must demonstrate probable cause in order to search personal property. Searching a recording device is still a gray area. Legislation regarding this issue will probably be on the table in the near future.
Source: Police One