It took nearly a year for an arrest to be made in the gruesome shooting of an El Paso couple in their home on the edge of Memorial Park in central El Paso. Georgette Kaufmann, 50, was shot dead in her garage on November 14, 2020, with the engine still running in her car – she had just returned home. Her husband Daniel Kaufmann was shot several times, but survived and managed to crawl to a neighbor’s house to call 911.
But it was not crime scene evidence that led the El Paso Police Department to alleged shooter Joseph Angel Alvarez, 38, who was arrested on September 8 and charged with murder. Instead, it was the use of a controversial surveillance technology who led the police to both Alvarez and an indirect witness to the murder. The technology, a Google Geofence search warrant, has been described by legal expert and privacy advocate Albert Fox Cahn as akin to “dystopian science fiction.”
Google’s geofence warrants provide law enforcement with anonymized information on all cellular devices in a selected geographic area using Google’s Global Positioning System, or GPS, Sensorvault database. This is different from how a typical search warrant works, as in these cases the police are required to identify the specific object sought, a constitutional standard called “Particularity”.
Thus, although the arrest of Alvarez relieved to the Kaufmann family and was applauded by the Anti-Defamation League, privacy advocates say the tools used by El Paso police to resolve the case are of deep concern.
“These geographic barriers kind of justify the reversal (concept of particularity),” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Freedom and National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan legal and political institute. “They say, ‘well, we think we’re going to find something in this general area and at this general time and then we’ll see what we find,’ and so there has been a real push to ban the closing warrants. geographic for this reason. “
Although the use of geographic closure mandates has exponentially increased in recent years, challenges to their constitutionality have also increased.
Texas used Google’s second-highest number of geofence warrants among state jurisdictions, according to data provided by Google. In 2020, two federal judges ruled that the geographic closure warrants were unconstitutional.
“This is one of the most powerful threats imaginable to any sense of self-reliance in our country,” said Fox Cahn, who is the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Supervision Project. “When you have the opportunity to reconstruct anyone’s movements, map every point in their life and do it not just for individuals but for entire communities, that’s the kind of authoritarian control that goes beyond- beyond George Orwell’s worst nightmare. “
How surveillance technology was used in the Kaufmann shooting investigation
There is no evidence against Alvarez listed in the arrest affidavit that is unrelated to Google Geofence’s original search warrant. But the affidavit says that once police found Alvarez’s cell phone, described as a “device of interest,” they obtained an additional Google search warrant to access his email, as well as another search warrant for Facebook.
Alvarez’s email history and Facebook account led police to evidence linking him to the crime, including a bizarre manifesto he allegedly emailed to the US military on the day of the murder which described the planned shooting and an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory involving magical abortions at Memorial Park. The manifesto also referred to the Kaufmanns as having voted for President Joe Biden; the shooting took place 11 days after the presidential election.
Through Facebook, police discovered that the alleged shooter owned or had access to a Glock handgun. They also discovered that he had recently been fired from his job after harassing an employee and approaching her in his vehicle in a manner described in the affidavit of arrest as “very similar” to which Georgette Kaufmann was approached.
The geographic fence warrant also led to the discovery of an indirect witness who observed a vehicle matching Alvarez’s “dark-colored mid-size SUV” description at the crime scene, according to the affidavit.
An El Paso police spokesperson, who did not provide a name, declined to be asked about the department’s use of geofence warrants.
“The police department will not discuss new technologies being used for the simple reason that we do not want to disclose what we are doing to the criminal element,” the spokesperson said in an email to El Paso Matters.
Police listed the technology that led them to Alvarez in an arrest warrant, which is on public record in Texas.
Fox Cahn said using a geofence warrant against Alvarez could be problematic if the warrant itself is declared unconstitutional.
“It’s incredibly likely that a case built entirely on geofence warrants will be dismissed,” said Fox Cahn.
City representative Alexsandra Annello, whose district includes Memorial Park, said a key issue is the lack of clarity on the extent of the use of surveillance technology by the El Paso Police Department. .
“The real concern is what are the guidelines here (related to geofence mandates)? How is it used, when is it used? If there is a question of constitutionality, what do we follow? she said.
Annello said city council has no control over the police department at this time. “We can ask for an update, we might not get it,” she said.
City Representative Joe Molinar, a former police officer, had never heard of geofence warrants until he was contacted for this article. He said that when he was a detective, no one had a cell phone. But he hopes it will work out well in this case.
The blatant nature of the Kaufmann shooting itself and the alleged anti-Semitic motive complicate ethical concerns about the nature of the investigation, Annello said.
“The conversation around (surveillance technology) around hate crimes is one thing, compared to just tapping into people’s information for no reason. It’s a difficult thing, isn’t it? ” she said.
Fox Cahn said the overall cost of standardizing geofence warrants is too high.
“You could solve crimes if you forced every American to wear an ankle monitor at all times, you could solve crimes if you forced everyone to have police-controlled cameras inside the house, but we know that this kind of invasion is too dangerous. And with geofence warrants, the danger is just as great, but we just don’t see it for what it is, ”he said.
Cover photo: Georgette Kaufmann was murdered in her garage, which overlooks Memorial Park. (René Kladzyk / El Paso Matters)