Orcas Island search warrant sparks legal debate about Google Earth


ORCAS ISLAND, Wash. - The San Juan Islands are at the center of a legal debate about Google Earth after the website's aerial images were used to obtain a search warrant on Orcas Island.

The San Juan County prosecutor reported on the San Juan Islander that the search warrant was obtained after numerous unsuccessful efforts to secure a resident's permission to visit his property.

When the search warrant was executed, evidence was found that a structure on the property, which belonged to Errol Speed, was being used as a single-family residence.

According to court documents, Speed constructed the residence without a permit, occupied the structure without an occupancy permit, and failed to provide approved sewage disposal.

Speed was charged with three misdemeanors relating to the structure and one gross misdemeanor for providing false or misleading statements to the county assessor.

Last Wednesday, San Juan County District Court Judge Stewart Andrews heard arguments regarding the validity of the search warrant.

In court documents, Speed says the resolution of the Google Earth images of his property is higher than what could be seen with the naked human eye from an aircraft 1,000 feet above. Speed argued that details such as a deck, chimney, skylights and porch on what he called an "accessory agricultural building" couldn't be seen without Google Earth, and, he said, there were no grounds for a search warrant.

At the Wednesday hearing, attorney Lawrence Delay argued that the search warrant was invalid because the satellites used for Google Earth images were launched by the government, and the images can't therefore be used to obtain the warrant.

"Google is an agency of the government," Delay said, according to the San Juan Islander.

The warrant, Delay said, was unconstitutional because the images violated Speed's right to privacy.

Senior Deputy Prosecutor Charles Silverman counter argued that the images of Speed's roof did not violate any expectation of privacy.

Silverman also said that other evidence, in addition to the Google Earth images, were cited when the county prosecutor's office obtained the warrant. Speed had told the county code enforcement office he had an unpermitted wood stove.

Andrew will issue his decision about the validity of the search warrant on May 8.