“Alexa, Don’t Witness These Murders!”

by | January 28, 2019

State v. Timothy Verrill, Order on Motion to Search, No. 219-2017-CR-072 (N.H. Super. Ct., Strafford County, Nov. 5, 2018)

Two women were murdered in a New Hampshire home owned by a man who allegedly ran a drug empire with ties to outlaw biker gangs, criminal street gangs and cartels in New Hampshire and Florida. The man returned home and found a bloody mattress. Rather than immediately calling the police, he reviewed recordings from his seven security cameras. The footage revealed images of Timothy Verrill with the two women and, later, leaving the house alone. The women’s bodies were later found wrapped in tarps under the front porch.

Though police know of no eyewitnesses, there may have been a witness listening in. The house was equipped with an Amazon Echo smart speaker device, which houses the cloud-based voice service known as “Alexa.” Investigators question whether the device might have been awakened by spoken words during the time of the murder. Investigators seized the device, but the data and sound recordings are housed on servers controlled by Amazon, which Amazon refused to provide without a court order. According to Amazon’s own data, it receives fewer than 500 search warrants annually (not just for sound perception, but also for other stored data), and it fully complies with fewer than half of the orders.

The court found there was probable cause to believe the device could have captured evidence of the murders and the removal of the bodies.

In at least one other case, investigators have sought possible sound recordings from an Amazon Echo device. When James Andrew Bates was suspected of murdering a former Georgia police officer, Amazon resisted investigators’ efforts to obtain information relating to the device’s stored sound data. However, Bates consented to disclosure of the data and Amazon complied without a court battle. In that case, Amazon stated: “Given the important First Amendment and privacy implications at stake, the warrant should be quashed unless the Court finds that the State has met its heightened burden for compelled production of such materials.”

In the case of Verrill, investigators sought a warrant for the Amazon Echo sound recordings. The court found there was probable cause to believe the device could have captured evidence of the murders and the removal of the bodies. The court issued an order requiring Amazon to produce the digital data, but there is no word yet on whether Amazon will comply. This scenario is likely to be repeated, as recent estimates indicate 16% of Americans have some form of smart speaker listening in their homes. Perhaps Amazon could build in a new voice command: “Alexa, don’t listen to this crime!”

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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