Alexa’s Role as a Witness in a Murder Trial

As technology brings new capabilities, there are issues that must be resolved using the very old rules of evidence emerge. The state of Arkansas may be the first to grapple with whether Amazon’s Alex could be a witness at a trial. 

Here are the facts underlying Alexa’s involvement.  In November 2015, Victor Collins, James Bates, Owen McDonald, and Sean Henry had been watching a football game and drinking vodka shots.  After the game, Mr. Henry left and the three men remaining dismissed to Bates’ hot tub. Mr. Bates said that he went to bed at 1 AM and left McDonald and Collins in the hot tub.  The next morning Mr. Bates said he awoke and saw Mr. Bates face-down in the hot tub and called 9-1-1.  The police immediately suspected that they did not have a drowning on their hands because Mr. Collins had a black eye, a cut on his eyelid, swollen lips, and blood coming from his nose and mouth. They also found blood on the hot tub cover, a broken Skyy vodka bottle, and broken glass.  The police found Mr. Collins’ prescription glasses and his wedding ring at the bottom of the hot tub.

Their investigation also showed that someone had used 140 gallons of water between 1 AM and 3 AM the night of the murder. The detectives concluded that the patio where the hot tub was located had been hosed down.  Haley Sweetland Edwards, “Alexa Takes the Stand: Listening Devices Raise Privacy Issues,” Time, May 15, 2017, p. 28. Mr. Bates’ iPhone6s Plus also indicated that his passcode/fingerprint-locked phone was used between 1 AM and 3 AM, something that contradicts his statement to the police that he went to bed at 1 AM. The cause of death was strangulation with a contributing cause of drowning. Collins blood-alcohol level was 0.32.

Mr. McDonald left the Bates home at 12:30 AM, obtaining a ride home with “a concerned neighbor.” His wife and the neighbor confirmed his arrival at his home, located 2 miles away, at 12:30 AM. 

The investigation team also noted that Bates had an Amazon Echo in his living room.  The device answers to “Alexa,” and, believing that the device could offer information about what happened in Bates’ living room the night of the murder, the police subpoenaed Amazon for access. Initially, Amazon opposed the subpoena, but Mr. Collins then voluntarily released them himself a few weeks ago.

However, the question remains – is the information on Alexa, Google Home, or Siri private, thus requiring disclosure only on the basis of search warrants?  Or is it public information, such as when you sit down and use your keyboard to participate via the Internet?

DISCUSSION STARTERS

Explain the evidentiary value of having the Alexa recordings.

Discuss the privacy and constitutional issues in this case.