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Google Earth, P.I.: 9th Cir OKs Use of Google Earth Evidence

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 22, 2015 10:01 AM

Does Google Earth have a secret identity as a crime solver? Apparently. The digital eye-in-the-sky has been revealing street crime for years, from petty drug deals to apparent murders. The program has also been used to investigate illegal deforestation, housing violations, and even tax fraud.

With all the evidence that can be found on Google Earth, one might be surprised to learn that courts have not always treated it as admissible. That might change, though, as the Ninth Circuit gave Google Earth its stamp of approval last Thursday.

Google Evidence

Google Earth images can be used as evidence in court, the Ninth found, without violating the prohibition on hearsay. The ruling comes from an appeal by Paciano Lizarraga-Tirado, who was arrested while illegally crossing into the United States from Mexico. Lizarraga-Tirado claimed innocence, arguing that it was in fact the Border Patrol agents who had crossed to the south. The arresting agents, however, used a GPS device to record their coordinates. Google Earth showed those coordinates as north of the border.

Lizarraga-Tirado argued that the use of Google Earth was hearsay. Lizarraga-Tirado was able to question the Border Patrol agents about recording their coordinates, but he could not raise questions about the accuracy or quality of the Google Earth image, since no witness was responsible for its generation. That's hearsay evidence, he argued, since the satellite image asserts that it accurately represented the location of the arrest.

So Much for 1,000 Words

The Ninth, however, wasn't buying that argument. Google Earth, just like a photograph, doesn't make any assertion at all. It simply provides "a snapshot of the world as it existed when the satellite passed overhead." Similarly, tacking coordinates and applying them to Google Earth, when not done manually, is not hearsay.

Go After Reliability, Not Hearsay

"But Google gave me bad directions just the other day," you think. "How could any court trust it?" That, of course, is the point. While one can submit a photograph as evidence, any party is free to question whether it's an accurate representation of what was happening at the time. The same goes for a Google Earth image. Unfortunately for him, Lizarraga-Tirado never attempted to question the accuracy of the satellite image or the GPS coordinates.

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