El Paso police used a controversial surveillance technology to crack the Memorial Park shooting cold case
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 and killed in her garage on Nov. 14, 2020, the engine still running in her car — she had just gotten home. Her husband Daniel Kaufmann was shot multiple times, but survived and managed to crawl to a neighbor’s house to call 911.
But it wasn’t evidence from the scene of the crime that led the El Paso Police Department to the alleged shooter, 38-year-old Joseph Angel Alvarez, who was arrested on Sept. 8 and charged with murder. Instead, it was the use of a controversial surveillance technology that led police both to Alvarez and to an indirect witness in the killing. The technology, a Google geofence search warrant, was described by legal expert and privacy rights advocate Albert Fox Cahn as akin to “dystopian science fiction.”
Google geofence warrants provide law enforcement with anonymized information about all cellular devices in a selected geographical area using Google’s Sensorvault database of Global Positioning System, or GPS, records. It’s different from how a typical search warrant works because in those cases police are required to identify the specific item being searched for, a constitutional standard referred to as “particularity.”
So although Alvarez’s arrest brought relief to the Kaufmann family and was applauded by the Anti-Defamation League, privacy rights advocates say that the tools used by El Paso police to crack the case are deeply concerning.
“These geofence warrants kind of turn that (concept of particularity) on its head,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute. “They say, ‘well, we think we’re going to find something in this general area and general time and then we’ll see what we find,’ and so there’s been a real push to outlaw geofence warrants for that reason.”
While use of geofence warrants has increased exponentially in recent years, challenges to their constitutionality have also increased.
Texas used the second highest number of Google geofence warrants among state jurisdictions, according to data provided by Google. In 2020, two federal judges ruled that geofence warrants were unconstitutional.
“This is one of the most potent threats imaginable to any sense of autonomy in our country,” said Fox Cahn, who is the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “When you have the ability to reconstruct anyone’s movements, to map out every point of their life, and to do it not just for individuals but for entire communities, that’s the sort of authoritarian control that goes 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 not tied to the initial Google geofence search warrant. But the affidavit said that once the police found Alvarez’s cell phone, described as a “device of interest,” they obtained an additional Google search warrant to access his email, and yet another search warrant for Facebook.
Alvarez’s email history and Facebook account led police to evidence tying him to the crime, including a bizarre manifesto he allegedly emailed to the U.S. Army on the day of the murder that described the planned shooting and an antisemitic conspiracy theory involving magical abortions in 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 may have owned or had access to a Glock handgun. They also discovered he had recently been fired from his job after stalking a female employee and approaching her in her vehicle in a way the arrest affidavit described as “very similar” to how Georgette Kaufmann was approached.
The geofence warrant also led to the discovery of an indirect witness who had observed a vehicle matching the description of Alvarez’s “dark in color mid-sized SUV” at the scene of the crime, according to the affidavit.
A spokesperson for El Paso police, who did not provide a name, declined to be interviewed about the department’s use of geofence warrants.
“The Police Department will not discuss new technologies used for the simple reason we do not want to disclose what we do 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 public record in Texas.
Fox Cahn said that the reliance of the case against Alvarez on a geofence warrant could be problematic if the warrant itself is ruled unconstitutional.
“It’s incredibly likely that a case built entirely on geofence warrants will be thrown out down the road,” Fox Cahn said.
City Rep. Alexsandra Annello, whose district includes Memorial Park, said a key issue is a lack of clarity around how broadly the El Paso Police Department is using surveillance technology.
“The real concern is, what are the guidelines here (related to geofence warrants)? How is this being used, when is this being used? If there is a question of constitutionality, what are we following?” she said.
Annello said that the City Council has no oversight of the Police Department at the moment. “We can ask for an update, we may not get it,” she said.
City Rep. Joe Molinar, a former police officer, had never heard of geofence warrants prior to being contacted for this article. He said that when he was a detective no one had a cell phone. But he hopes it works out well in this case.
The egregious nature of the Kaufmann shooting itself and alleged antisemitic motive complicates ethical concerns around the nature of the investigation, Annello said.
“The conversation around (surveillance technology) around hate crimes is one thing, versus just kind of tapping into people’s information for no reason. It’s a hard thing, right?” she said.
Fox Cahn said the big picture cost of normalizing geofence warrants is too great.
“You could solve crimes if you forced every American to wear an ankle monitor at all times, you could solve crimes if you forced every person to have police controlled cameras within the home, but we know that these sorts of invasions are too dangerous. And with geofence warrants, the danger is just as severe but we simply don’t see it for what it is,” he said.
Cover photo: Georgette Kaufmann was murdered in her garage, which faces directly into Memorial Park. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)