Green Valley Ranch arson: Judge upholds Google keyword warrant

A Denver judge on Wednesday upheld the legality of a controversial Google search warrant that led police to charge three teenagers in the arson of a Green Valley Ranch home two years ago that killed five people.

Defense attorneys for 18-year-olds Kevin Bui and Gavin Seymour signaled after the ruling that the teens’ cases may be headed toward a plea agreement, rather than a jury trial.

Bui and Seymour are each charged with first-degree murder and dozens of other counts in connection with the Aug. 5, 2020, fire, which killed five Senegalese family members in a home on Truckee Street. Those killed were: 29-year-old Djibril Diol, 23-year-old Adja Diol, their 2-year-old daughter Khadija, 25-year-old Hassan Diol, and her daughter, 6-month-old Hawa Baye.

Bui mistakenly thought a person who stole his phone lived in the family’s home and he wanted revenge, prosecutors allege. The teens bought masks to wear to hide their faces and splashed gasoline inside of the home before lighting it on fire, law enforcement officials have testified.

Bui and Seymour were 16 at the time. A third teenager, who was 15 at the time of the arson, is being tried as a juvenile.

During the police investigation, which went months without a break in the case, officers sought a reverse-keyword search warrant from Google seeking information about anyone who had searched the address of the burned house during the 15 days prior to the fire.

That search warrant led officers to Seymour, and then to Bui and the third teenager.

The older teenagers’ defense attorneys had challenged the legality of the search and sought to suppress the evidence from Google as well as evidence found during subsequent searches of the teenagers’ cellphones and social media accounts. They argued the Google search warrant was “a massive fishing expedition” that violated millions of peoples’ right to privacy.

Denver District Court Judge Martin Egelhoff roundly rejected that argument during a hearing Wednesday and spent 90 minutes on the bench explaining his reasoning for denying all of the defense attorneys’ motions to suppress evidence.

“In my review of all of this, it is my judgment that the police in this case did exactly what we want the police to do: be careful, be specific, be particular, go through the judicial process to obtain this information,” he said. “And quite frankly if the court were to determine based off all these things they did, that that somehow is beyond what the Fourth Amendment requires, I find that hard to understand and believe.”

Egelhoff found that the search warrants were specific, narrow, supported by probable cause and procedurally sound. He rejected the argument that the search was a violation of privacy.

“I liken this search to looking for a needle in a haystack,” he said. “… And the fact that the haystack may be big, the fact the haystack may have a lot of information in it, doesn’t mean a targeted search in that haystack somehow implicates overbreadth.”

The ruling was critical to the prosecution and a major blow to the defense. After hearing the judge’s decision, one of Seymour’s defense attorneys, Michael Juba, asked that the case not be scheduled for a jury trial so that the defense and prosecution could discuss other resolutions. He said Seymour was willing to withdraw his not-guilty plea, though Seymour did not do so Wednesday.

Christian Earle, a defense attorney for Bui, asked that Bui’s jury trial, which had been scheduled for December, be canceled so the defense could confer with the prosecution about resolutions outside of trial.

Both teenagers were scheduled to return to court on Jan. 20, at which point the cases are expected to either be resolved through a plea agreement or rescheduled for jury trials.

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