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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. John Edward Kurtz (2023): Examining the Admissibility of Google and Cell Tower Evidence

Town Law Publishing June 1, 2024

Cell towerCommonwealth v. Kurtz, 2023 Pa. Super. 72, 294 A.3d 509 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2023)


John Edward Kurtz was convicted of numerous offenses, including rape, kidnapping, attempted rape, and attempted kidnapping, involving five victims over a span of several years. The case involves a series of heinous crimes that were meticulously planned and executed.

On the evening of July 19, 2016, K.M., one of the victims, went to sleep after her husband left for his overnight shift at a correctional facility. She was awakened by her barking dogs and, upon investigating, was ambushed by a masked man. The intruder tied her hands with zip ties, blindfolded, gagged her, and struck her several times before dragging her outside and into his vehicle. He transported her to a camper, where he vaginally and anally raped her. K.M. was later abandoned in a cornfield near her home, from where she found her way to safety and contacted the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP). DNA was collected from K.M. at the hospital.

In September 2016, PSP obtained a search warrant directed to Google for any searches of K.M.'s name or home address made in the week preceding the attack. Google identified an IP address associated with searches for K.M.'s address hours before the assault. PSP traced the IP address to John Edward Kurtz, who worked as a corrections officer at the same facility as K.M.'s husband. During surveillance, PSP collected a discarded cigarette butt from Kurtz, which matched the DNA collected from K.M.

PSP arrested Kurtz on December 18, 2017. During the investigation, Kurtz confessed to the kidnapping and rape of K.M. and implicated himself in four other incidents involving victims D.S., H.Z., A.H., and T.S. Each victim testified, recounting similarly terrifying encounters with Kurtz, who used zip ties, gags, and blindfolds during the assaults.

D.S. testified that on November 9, 2012, a masked man entered her home, tied her up, gagged her, and attempted to carry her to the basement before leaving without assaulting her. DNA from the crime scene matched Kurtz.

H.Z. testified that on April 22, 2017, she was abducted from her home, taken to another location, and raped. DNA evidence again matched Kurtz.

A.H. testified about multiple break-ins at her home in 2015, and T.S. recounted an incident on June 3, 2015, where she was tied up and threatened, though not sexually assaulted.

Kurtz was charged at three separate dockets for offenses related to these five victims. The cases were consolidated despite Kurtz's motion to sever.

Lower Court Decision

Kurtz filed several pre-trial motions, including attempts to suppress evidence obtained from Google and cell tower data. He argued that the Google search warrant lacked probable cause and violated his expectation of privacy. He also contended that the cell tower data obtained from AT&T, which placed his phone near T.S.'s home during the attack, was collected without a valid search warrant.

The trial court denied Kurtz's motions, finding that there was sufficient probable cause for the Google search warrant and that Kurtz had no reasonable expectation of privacy for his IP address or Google searches. The court also ruled that the cell tower data was admissible and did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights.

Kurtz's trial began on October 5, 2020, and concluded on October 14, 2020, with a guilty verdict on all counts. On March 2, 2021, Kurtz was sentenced to an aggregate term of 59 to 280 years in prison. Kurtz filed a post-sentence motion, which was denied on May 17, 2021. Subsequently, Kurtz appealed the judgment of sentence.

Cell towerSuperior Court Decision

Kurtz contended that the cell tower data obtained from AT&T was gathered without a valid search warrant supported by probable cause, thus violating his Fourth Amendment rights. He argued that the data, often referred to as a "tower dump," was obtained through an overly broad request that failed to specify individual targets or demonstrate a clear connection to the criminal activity, making it an unconstitutional search.

The Superior Court meticulously analyzed the legal nuances surrounding the admissibility of the tower dump evidence and ultimately found that Kurtz did not have a legitimate expectation of privacy regarding this type of data. The court's decision highlighted several key legal precedents and distinctions between different types of location data collection, primarily differentiating tower dumps from continuous tracking methods such as cell-site location information (CSLI).

Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018): The court referenced the landmark Carpenter decision, which established that obtaining seven days or more of CSLI constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment, thereby requiring a warrant supported by probable cause. CSLI provides detailed tracking of an individual's movements over an extended period, offering law enforcement a comprehensive log of where the person has been. However, the Carpenter ruling explicitly left open the question of whether shorter-term location tracking or tower dumps would necessitate a warrant. The Superior Court underscored this distinction, noting that tower dumps are inherently less invasive because they do not continuously monitor an individual's movements but rather capture a snapshot of all devices connected to a specific cell tower at a given time.

The court emphasized that tower dumps, unlike CSLI, do not provide a granular, real-time tracking mechanism but instead gather general information about all devices in a specific area during a specific period. This differentiation was crucial in the court's reasoning, suggesting that the less invasive nature of tower dumps warranted a different legal approach compared to CSLI.

Commonwealth v. Dunkins, 263 A.3d 247 (Pa. 2021): The Superior Court also cited the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision in Dunkins, where it was held that obtaining a list of devices connected to a college’s Wi-Fi network at a specific time did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Dunkins court emphasized that such searches are limited in scope and less intrusive than CSLI, which tracks a person’s continuous movements. By analogy, the Superior Court found that the tower dump in Kurtz's case was similarly limited and non-intrusive. The Dunkins decision reinforced the notion that obtaining general connection data from a network or a cell tower during a specific timeframe does not equate to the detailed surveillance of an individual's movements over time.

United States v. Adkinson, 916 F.3d 605 (7th Cir. 2019): The Superior Court referred to Adkinson, where the Seventh Circuit held that tower dumps, which identify phones near a crime scene at a specific time, do not infringe on privacy rights in the same manner as CSLI. The Adkinson court noted that Carpenter's rationale did not extend to tower dumps, reinforcing the limited privacy interest in such data. The Adkinson case provided additional support for the Superior Court's decision, illustrating a consistent judicial perspective that tower dumps do not violate Fourth Amendment protections in the same way as continuous location tracking.

Additional Considerations: The Superior Court further elaborated that the legal process used to obtain the tower dump data in Kurtz's case was consistent with the standards set forth in relevant statutory frameworks. Specifically, the court highlighted that the Pennsylvania Wiretap Act allows for the collection of electronic communication records, including tower dumps, based on "specific and articulable facts" demonstrating reasonable grounds for believing that the information sought is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation. This standard, while less stringent than probable cause, was deemed sufficient given the nature and scope of the data requested.

The court concluded that the limited temporal and geographic scope of the tower dump request—focusing on a specific cell tower during the time of the crime—provided a reasonable balance between investigative needs and privacy considerations. The snapshot nature of the data, capturing connections to a single tower over a brief period, did not present the same privacy concerns as continuous monitoring through CSLI.

Cell tower

The Superior Court's decision affirmed the lower court's denial of Kurtz's motion to suppress the tower dump evidence. The court found that the evidence was lawfully obtained and did not violate Kurtz's Fourth Amendment rights. By distinguishing tower dumps from more invasive tracking methods and referencing pertinent case law, the court upheld the admissibility of the cell tower data, reinforcing the principle that not all digital data collection requires the same level of judicial scrutiny. The decision underscores the importance of contextual factors, such as the scope and invasiveness of the data collection method, in determining the applicability of Fourth Amendment protections.