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Is SWAT raid on wrong house, based on open Wi-Fi IP address, unconstitutional?

Evansville SWAT raid on wrong house based on open wi fi ip address
Credit: Screengrab from SWAT helmet cam video evidence

Does a SWAT raid on a wrong house, based on an IP address and Wi-Fi router that had no password protection, violate the Fourth Amendment?

Although the EFF and a coalition of other organizations believe in the Open Wireless Movement, here’s a nightmare-like story regarding a SWAT team raiding the wrong house based on open Wi-Fi and an IP address. Court documents filed on 9/11 revealed that Evansville Police did not look into all the IP addresses associated with anonymous posts before sending in SWAT. The owner of the house claims the raid violated her “Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure and excessive force.”

Before we dive into this, you really should take the time to watch the Evansville, Indiana, SWAT helmet cam video evidence that was released by the City Attorney’s office. The real action starts after the three minute mark.

Two years ago, online rumors of leaked police addresses and other personal information led to some pretty serious threats made against the Evansville Police. The online comments were posted on Topix.com. The warrant application (pdf) mentions a subpoena sent to Topix requesting information about three usernames and the IP addresses associated with threats the users made to the police. It turns out that all three users had the same IP, and so Time Warner Cable was subpoenaed for the subscriber name and address associated with that IP address.

According to a court document response (pdf) filed by the subscriber, Louise Milan, Topix found nine usernames that had used that IP to post threats, but the cops were focused on just three. Topix also warned the cops, “Multiple people could be using that same IP address so that may lead you to a different, unrelated user."

Time Warner also warned that the IP address associated with the online threats to the Evansville Police Department and Chief Billy Bolin did not mean it came from the individual registered as having that IP. “We do not make any representations as to the identity of the individual who actually used the above IP address on the time and date in question.”

In fact, according to testimony, a detective claimed that prior to SWAT busting the glass door, tossing in two flashbangs, and handcuffing the mom and daughter, “he drove down her street to check for open wireless connections and discovered one while in front of her house.”

City attorneys argue that “searching the home to examine the Internet router and computers was necessary.” They also admit, “Further investigation was necessary to determine if the person posting the threats from the IP address was the actual residence subscriber to the IP address or someone else.”

A formal apology (pdf) to Milan, which was filed by EPD Chief Bolin, states, “With the facts we had available at the time, and due to the totality of circumstances, using our SWAT team was the clear choice.” Despite that apology, by 2011 a judge had ruled that an IP address is not a person. The cops claim that the EPD threat assessment (pdf) ultimately was the deciding factor to use SWAT, but the SWAT raid was also filmed by a news crew as a “thank you” for a tip. Milan’s attorney, Kyle Biesecker, pointed out that if the threat was so severe, why did police bring civilians along to film it?

Meanwhile, a mere 167 feet away, a neighbor whom the FBI later arrested as the person responsible for the threats, watched the SWAT raid.

SWAT raid on wrong house due to IP address Microsoft / Bing

Derrick Murray said the cops later discovered he used his neighbor’s IP address when logging onto his Facebook account. Murray "admitted in federal court he used his smartphone to connect to the wireless Internet router in Milan’s house and post the threats. Access to the router connection was not protected by a password."

There was no SWAT involvement, no glass breaking, and no flashbang throwing when Murray was arrested. "We did surveillance on the house (Murray's)," Bolin told the Courier & Press. "We knew that there were little kids there, so we decided we weren't going to use the SWAT team. We did have one officer with a ram to hit the door in case they refused to open the door. That didn't happen, so we didn't need to use it."

In fact, according to Milan’s legal response (pdf):

Murray had been spotted by the EPD and its detectives prior to the raid on Louise’s home, two doors down from her home while they were conducting surveillance prior to the raid and was discussed as the person they believed who was ultimately responsible for the posts before the raid on Louise’s home. Despite having this information and several other important pieces, including that no one in the home was involved, the EPD ignored all of it and went ahead with its military raid on her home, smashed their way into Milan’s home with their assault rifles cocked and aimed, and detonated two flash-bang grenades in the process.

Milan claims the raid violated her “Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure and excessive force.” If you watched the video, do you agree?

While this is certainly not the first time the police have raided the wrong house, in order for more people to join the Open Wireless Movement, incidents like this must stop. I reached out to the EFF for comment.

EFF Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury said:

“Unfortunately, the image of law enforcement raiding people’s houses only to discover someone else was using their wireless router to engage in criminal activity is neither a new or isolated phenomenon. As we’ve explained before, merely knowing an IP address is not enough to narrow down who a criminal suspect is. As we launch our Open Wireless project, we’re hopeful law enforcement would do more thorough follow up investigation before knocking doors and bringing in the SWAT team.”

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