The case of an April 2019 hit-and-run in Chandler highlights how police departments can use yet another emerging technology — in this case, self-driving vehicles like Waymo — to obtain evidence in criminal investigations.
The fact that self-driving cars will allow companies to track your location, gathering information about you, your habits, and the places you visit, has been written about extensively; less covered is the fact that they also will be watching you even when you're not riding in one.
On April 12 of last year, a Friday night, a 32-year-old man was pedaling down the bike lane on Galveston Street near Chippewa Drive when a black Jeep Patriot hit him, a Chandler police report shows.
The driver paused momentarily, according to witnesses, then fled the scene. Someone called police, and when Officers Christopher Farrar and Randle Meeker arrived, they found the victim laying near the road with blood coming out of his left ear and "an obvious fracture to his left lower leg," the report states.
The victim was transported by ambulance to Chandler Regional Medical Center while other officers arrived and interviewed witnesses, cordoned off the scene, and canvassed the area for possible surveillance footage.
At the hospital, staff performed a leg X-ray and a CT scan due to the victim's head injuries. The man's leg was severely injured. Hospital staff said he was in critical condition and that there was a possibility he might not survive his injuries.
Days later, on April 17, a Chandler police officer obtained surveillance footage from a nearby residence. The video showed a black Jeep Patriot driving westbound on Galveston Street, then northbound on Central Drive. The car appeared to be damaged on the passenger side, but the footage was not clear enough to make out a license plate.
Chandler cops canvassed the area for vehicles matching that description, but eventually ruled out all the Jeep Patriots they located as being involved in the hit-and-run.
Police released information on the crime to the public in an attempt to gather further information, but none of the tips that came in proved fruitful.
Then, on May 7, Detective Brandon Ynclan drafted a search warrant to Waymo, the Google-affiliated self-driving car project. A Maricopa County Superior Court judge signed off on the warrant.
"The search warrant was to request Waymo to search their database to see if any of their vehicles were in the area within a time range of the collision and, if so, to preserve any video," said Detective Seth Tyler, a spokesperson for Chandler Police, when asked what led Ynclan to seek out footage from a Waymo vehicle. "In this case, Waymo in fact had a vehicle in the area whose video captured a vehicle that matched the suspect vehicle."
Asked how often Chandler police send warrants like these to Waymo, Tyler told Phoenix New Times he didn't immediately have an answer, adding that he would have to ask the vehicular crimes unit.
Since Waymo vehicles are continuously recording, they add to the pool of surveillance footage from places like residences, businesses, traffic cameras, Ring doorbells, and others that police departments can seek to obtain in criminal investigations. Autonomous, camera-equipped vehicles like Waymo can provide law enforcement with what is essentially a traveling fleet of surveillance cameras, easily accessible by a court order.
A spokesperson for Waymo said that the company's protocol is to ask law enforcement to submit a warrant before turning over footage.
The warrant submitted by Ynclan asked for "any and all surveillance video captured by any Waymo Chrysler Pacifica van which was in the area of this incident ...The video search should be conducted for any Waymo vehicle that was in the boundary of N. Alma School Road west to N. Dobson Road from W. Ray Road to W. Chandler Blvd."
Ynclan said Waymo should search for vehicles within this one-square-mile area between 6 and 6:30 p.m. on April 12, 2019, and should primarily be looking for any black Jeep Patriot. If any video of similar vehicle was located, he asked Waymo, it should be sent to him.
Two weeks after Ynclan submitted the warrant, on May 22, Waymo provided a video of the suspect vehicle to Chandler Police. At the time of the collision, a Waymo vehicle had been traveling eastbound on Ray Road near North Central Drive. The suspect vehicle can be seen passing the Waymo car at one point in the video, but the autonomous vehicle's cameras did not capture a license plate or any other identifying markings.
Ynclan decided to submit another warrant in the case, this time, to Google.
"On July 16, 2019, I drafted a Google Geo-fence warrant," Ynclan wrote. "This warrant was drafted in an attempt to identify a suspect in the case. This warrant would reveal person(s) in the designated area that had an active Google account."
A Maricopa County Superior Court judge granted the warrant that same day, and it was submitted to Google through its Law Enforcement Request System database.
When police send "geofence" warrants to Google, they specify an area and time period, then Google collects information on devices that were in the area at that time. According to a 2019 New York Times deep dive on such warrants, Google then labels the devices with anonymous ID numbers. Detectives look at the locations and movement patterns from each device in an attempt to determine whether any were associated with the crime.
"Once they narrow the field to a few devices they think belong to suspects or witnesses, Google reveals the users’ names and other information," the Times wrote.
In the case of the Chandler hit-and-run, Google has yet to respond to the request. On November 4, 2019, the investigation was suspended due to a lack of leads or suspects. New Times requested a copy of the geofence warrant from Maricopa County Superior Court, but a public information officer said the warrant was sealed in accordance with an order from the judge who signed the warrant.
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