Lawrence police use Google ‘geofence’ to identify suspect in late night break-in; man is now on trial
photo by: KBI Violent Offender Registry
Updated at 4:17 p.m. Thursday
You can find nearly anything on Google, and Lawrence police are using the tech giant’s data to track and identify crime suspects. One such suspect is on trial this week in Douglas County District Court.
The suspect, Lee Andrew Mitchell Pennington, 34, of Lawrence, is charged with aggravated burglary, aggravated assault and stalking after police used cellphone data from Google to track his movements the night of a home break-in in central Lawrence. Pennington’s jury trial began Monday.
According to the arrest affidavit in the case, the charges stem from an incident on Oct. 30, 2021, when a woman was in her bed asleep before 5 a.m. when a voice suddenly woke her up.
“Let’s hang out like last night,” the voice said, according to the affidavit.
The woman told police that she first thought it might be one of her roommates or a friend, but then the person placed a hand over her mouth, preventing her from screaming. The person then ran out of the building, she said.
Lawrence police detectives first used surveillance video starting around 3:45 a.m. from Bullwinkle’s Bar, 1344 Tennessee St., and from a nearby residence to follow the path of the woman walking down an alley to her residence. The surveillance video then showed a car follow the woman and park nearby; the driver exited the vehicle and walked along the same path as the woman in the alley.
The video later showed a person leave the alley about 20 minutes later and drive away around the same time the woman was calling 911 to report that someone had been in her bedroom. Police tracked the vehicle throughout the neighborhoods next to the university with additional surveillance video but they were unable to identify a suspect solely based on the dark passenger vehicle and shadowy figure from the video.
Police then issued a warrant to Google and using the location information of the vehicle on surveillance cameras they drew a “geofence” around the area during the time the break-in occurred. A geofence is a virtual perimeter for a real geographic area. In late November, Google provided investigators with 23 anonymous Google-connected devices that were moving in the area that night and 160 unique location points of those devices.
A detective mapped the walking and driving path of the suspect in the videos and compared the movement with those devices tracked by Google and found a device that matched the suspect’s movement.
A second warrant was issued to identify the owner of the device, and Google identified the owner as Pennington. Police asked for an additional warrant from Google for Pennington’s movements for 16 days before and after the break-in. When they received the data they reportedly saw that Pennington had not been near the victim’s house the week before the incident but was there that night and again a couple days later during the day.
Police arrested Pennington on March 8, and he was charged with the break-in. Pennington defended himself at the time of the arrest, claiming he was a GrubHub driver and that would explain why he was in the area that night, according to the affidavit. The detective informed him that he had already contacted GrubHub and verified that Pennington did not make any deliveries that night, according to the affidavit. At that point, Pennington chose to remain silent, according to the affidavit.
At his trial on Thursday, Pennington took the stand in his own defense and acknowledged that he was in the area that night. He said he was there to deal drugs to someone who lived nearby; he denied being in the woman’s house, although he may have been close enough to the house to affect the Google data.
Before trial Pennington’s defense attorney, Carol Cline, filed a motion to suppress the Google data. Her motion said that the Google data was unnecessary and intrusive and that detectives had already identified the suspect’s vehicle, including his tag number, from surveillance videos.
“To date Kansas courts have not offered much guidance regarding geofence search warrants, but it is clear that the privacy interest in one person’s cell phone is greater than the interest in a vehicle, and the privacy interests in the cell phones of dozens of people who happened to be in the area at the wrong time cannot be overstated,” Cline said in the motion.
The motion was ultimately denied by Judge Amy Hanley, and the Google data was allowed as evidence.
During closing arguments Thursday, Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden told the jury that in addition to the Google data, evidence included Pennington’s DNA on a partially opened window to the woman’s residence. Cline argued that the DNA could have gotten there by means other than Pennington entering the house.
Pennington’s case went to the jury on Thursday afternoon.
Pennington is currently being held at the Douglas County Jail on a $75,000 bond. He was convicted in Douglas County for multiple counts of aggravated robbery with a weapon in 2008 and was sentenced to 132 months, or 11 years, in prison, according to court records. He is ordered to register as a violent offender stemming from those crimes until 2033, according to KBI records.