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Non-expert witnesses may testify about smartphone location tracking features

Maryland

,

United States

Background

In State v. Galicia, No. 5-2021 (Md. 2022), two teenagers were ambushed and shot multiple times while they sat in a parked car. Four men, including the respondent Rony Galicia, were charged and ultimately convicted of the murders in three separate trials. The Court of Special Appeals reversed Galicia's conviction on the basis of two evidentiary issues. One of those issues was whether a witness must be qualified as an expert to testify about a user’s ability to adjust the location tracking feature of a phone application.

Non-expert witness’ testimony at trial

At trial, the State introduced records and elicited testimony through a witness from Google about internet searches and location tracking conducted on Galicia's two Google accounts. The witness testified that a user of a device could turn off Google's location tracking. Galicia's counsel objected to the testimony on the ground that the State was required to present expert testimony to admit that evidence, but the trial court overruled the objection. 

Decision of the Court of Special Appeals

The Court of Special Appeals ruled that a cell phone user's ability to turn off location tracking functions on a phone was not within the realm of common knowledge. Therefore, the Court of Special Appeals held that the trial court erred in allowing the lay witness testimony at issue (at 44-45). 

Ruling of the Maryland Court of Appeals

On appeal, the majority of the Maryland Court of Appeals held that a user's ability to adjust the location tracking feature of a smartphone is within the understanding of the average layperson and that a witness whose testimony referred to that ability did not have to be qualified as an expert (at 2-3).

The majority explained that the issue was whether the Google witness relied on specialized knowledge in explaining that a user has the ability to enable or disable the tracking of location tracking data (at 53-54). The Court of Appeals held that the witness did not. The Court noted that smartphones are ubiquitous and the location tracking capabilities of those devices and their applications are becoming ever more familiar. 81% of American adults owned smartphones in 2021 and ownership among adults aged 18-49 was greater than 95% (at 52-53). Location history tracking is a consumer feature designed to be understood and managed by account holders. The simple fact that a mobile electronic device allows its users to customize the data they share with the manufacturer, the cell phone service provider, and various apps is common knowledge in modern society. That a user's customized or default settings may impact the records kept by those entities does not require specialized knowledge to understand (at 54). 

The Court noted that the inference that the witnesses' testimony was intended to help the jury draw - that Galicia could have manually disabled location tracking around the time of the murders - was well within the understanding of the average layperson (at 54-55).

July 19, 2022
State v. Galicia, No. 5-2021 (Md. 2022)
Author: Carli Kadish