Colorado judge finds “sea of unreliability” in company’s cellphone mapping data | Courts

Police and prosecutors in Colorado and across the country rely on a company’s cellphone location map data to help them convict criminals, but a Larimer County judge’s recent decision cast doubt on the technology when he reviewed its use in banned from his courtroom after finding them unreliable and error-prone.

Defense counsel in that case and a defense expert say the judge’s ruling could have far-reaching ramifications for previous criminal convictions and pending criminal cases that relied on the company’s cell phone mapping software.

“Prosecutors and law enforcement agencies across the country have used the data generated by this application to present evidence to juries and obtain criminal convictions,” said defense attorney Lee Christian. “Now it’s been classified as junk science. How many juries have been unduly influenced by something unscientific and wrong?”

District Judge Juan Villaseñor’s Sept. 20 ruling barred prosecutors from using cellphone mapping technology from a company founded by a former Arizona police officer in the trial of a 43-year-old defendant charged with three counts of stalking his former girlfriend was charged.

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Prosecutors eventually dropped those charges, although a jury convicted the defendant last month in a companion case to an assault charge that did not depend on cellphone location data.

The judge didn’t target all of the cell phone mapping data that is widely shared by law enforcement. Rather, his verdict was limited to Chandler, Arizona-based ZetX mapping software Trax, which produces aerial maps that prosecutors and police use to estimate the location of a suspect’s cellphone during a suspected crime. In 2021, analytics data giant LexisNexis acquired ZetX.

“Overall, Trax and its methods have been routinely (and harshly) admonished by the scientific and legal community, and people have failed to refer the court to evidence to the contrary,” Villaseñor wrote in his ruling, excluding the use of Trax technology stalking criminal case.

“There is a high likelihood that a jury would be misled by Trax’s flashy maps and seemingly accurate results,” the judge added. “But beneath those superficial displays lies a sea of ​​unreliability that the jury won’t see.”

The Gazette found at least 18 other criminal cases nationwide over a two-year period from 2016 to 2018 that relied at least in part on ZetX’s Trax technology, including a double murder conviction in Weld County.

Law enforcement agencies using ZetX Trax technology include the Colorado Springs Police Department and El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the Fort Collins Police Department, among others, said Mark Pfoff, a court-qualified cellular technology expert and former detective for the office the El Paso County Sheriff, who testified for the defense. Denver Police say they don’t use ZetX’s Trax software.

“The ramifications of this ruling could be nationwide and even nationwide,” Pfoff said. “Every case decided based on information presented by ZetX with Trax could be reviewed and reversed.”

Trax creates aerial maps showing the location of historic cell phone sites and cell phone GPS data. Police and prosecutors use these maps to provide juries with the estimated location of cell phones that were being carried by suspects and their victims at the time of a crime.

Other companies produce cell phone location maps used by law enforcement, but the maps produced by the other companies don’t go as far as ZetX when it comes to determining an estimated location of a specific cell phone. ZetX’s competitors identify a cellphone tower antenna that cellphone records say was used. But these companies typically only show the direction of the cellphone tower antenna that the cellphone was using, indicating a wide general swath where a cellphone could have been, Pfoff said.

In contrast, ZetX draws a concentric circle around a cell tower and creates maps that indicate that a cell phone using that tower was likely within that circle. ZetX founder Sy Ray, a former sergeant in Arizona’s Gilbert Police Department, claims that the maps produced by the Trax software he creates are 94% to 96% accurate.

According to Pfoff, police and prosecutors find ZetX’s maps particularly compelling because they reduce ambiguity for juries and allow law enforcement to drastically narrow down the area they believe a cell phone was located.

Villaseñor noted that Ray, who did not respond to phone messages asking for comment on this article, was not a credible witness.

“He inflated his credentials and falsely claims to be an engineer,” the judge wrote in his ruling, noting that Ray testified that he was “more of an engineer than an engineer.”

“As previously mentioned, his only academic degree is an associate and there is no evidence that it is related to engineering. There is also no evidence that Ray took engineering classes,” the judge continued. “Obviously he built a booming business and successfully introduced Trax to multiple law enforcement agencies. But a solid business model does not equate to an accurate error rate.”

Villaseñor said in his ruling that he found three previous cases where challenges to ZetX’s use of Trax technology were unsuccessful. Judges eventually accepted evidence related to Trax in those cases, but Villaseñor said he found those rulings “unconvincing.”

“Most compelling is the complete lack of data to support Trax’s alleged margin of error and the widespread rejection of Trax’s methods by the scientific community,” Villaseñor wrote in his ruling, noting that he found three other judges’ rulings who dismissed or expressed skepticism about Trax-related evidence.

In the case of the man accused of triple stalking in Fort Collins, prosecutors wanted to use Trax cellphone data mapping as evidence to show that the defendant was repeatedly in the vicinity of his former girlfriend’s home, thereby confirming that he was resisting an injunction prohibiting him from stalking her.

The Trax cards created for the Fort Collins Police Department placed the man near his former girlfriend’s home on an almost daily basis between December 30, 2021 and January 11, 2022, the judge found in his verdict without the cards.

Pfoff testified in defense that Trax was unreliable. Pfoff provided GPS tracking of Jones’ truck as evidence, which undercut the cell phone location maps Trax produced in the case. The truck’s GPS recordings showed that Jones was actually driving on a freeway when he was said to be at the former girlfriend’s apartment multiple times, according to Pfoff.

“The truck’s GPS showed that on several occasions they tried to suggest him in that area of ​​the apartment, he was miles away,” Pfoff said in an interview. “He was on the other side of town. They said it was on the west side of Fort Collins and I was able to show that it was on the northeast side of Fort Collins.”

The GPS mapping supports the man’s claim that he drove back and forth between his home in Cheyenne, Wyo., and his job in Johnstown rather than following his girlfriend, Pfoff said.

Additionally, security video footage of the apartment complex refutes the former girlfriend’s claim that she and her son saw her former boyfriend’s red Dodge Ram drive through the apartment complex twice.

The investigating officer reviewed security footage for the second day and found that a red truck had driven through the complex, but the truck was not a Dodge. The judge in his ruling said the officer determined the truck was a Toyota and the Toyota had a trailer in the back, while the former boyfriend’s truck had no trailer.

Larimer County District Attorney Gordon McLaughlin, whose office was prosecuting the case, said he still believes the ZetX Trax technology is reliable.

“We respectfully disagree with the judge’s decision and will continue to consider such mapping information when provided by law enforcement investigators as part of a case presentation,” McLaughlin said in a prepared statement. “However, we have also advised local law enforcement agencies that certain judges may not allow the production of such evidence and they should therefore endeavor to use other methods and rely on other evidence when it is available.”

It was not immediately possible to determine how many criminal convictions were based on Trax’s mapping technology. Ray, the founder of ZetX, claimed in a resume he submitted in the case that he had trained over 8,000 law enforcement officials, prosecutors and defense professionals.

He also stated in his CV that he had testified as an expert in at least 18 criminal cases between 2016 and 2018. Another case in which Ray testified involved the October 15, 2015 double homicide at a marijuana smuggling operation in rural Weld County. Samuel Pinney, who was 36 at the time of his sentencing, was sentenced to two life terms for the murders in that case.

The Colorado Circuit Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court dismissed an appeal of Pinney’s conviction. However, that challenge was not about the cellphone location testimony in the case of Ray, the founder of ZetX. Instead, the appeal focused on other issues, such as the trial judge’s decision to bar testimony about alleged coercive techniques used during police interrogations.

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