00:53 - Source: CNN
Was Amazon Echo a witness to killing?

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Murder suspect will hand over recordings from his Amazon Echo smart speaker

Amazon had previously fought Arkansas prosecutor's demand for data from device

CNN —  

Amazon, go ahead and hand over the recordings in that murder case.

A high-profile attorney has taken over as lead counsel for an Arkansas man accused of killing his friend, a former police officer, after a night of drinking and football. A prosecutor had sought recordings from the defendant’s Amazon Echo smart speaker as evidence in the case, a request the online retailer had rebuffed.

According to a court document, lawyer Kathleen Zellner ended the legal tug of war Friday when she filed a motion saying her client, James Bates, would voluntarily hand over the recordings. Amazon provided the data to prosecutors later that day, the document says.

These devices are listening to you

Zellner, who rose to fame as the attorney for Steve Avery in Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” could not immediately be reached for comment at her Downers Grove, Illinois, office Tuesday.

She confirmed in a tweet, which was also posted to her law firm’s website, that the defense had agreed to hand over the recordings.

“My client James Bates is innocent,” the tweet said.

Request ‘overbroad’?

Amazon is pushing back against an Arkansas prosecutor’s demand for information from a murder suspect’s Echo smart speaker, setting up another legal battle over investigators’ quest for technology-based evidence and American privacy rights.

“Given the important First Amendment and privacy implications at stake, the warrant should be quashed unless the Court finds that the State has met its heightened burden for compelled production of such materials,” Amazon’s lawyers wrote in a February memo seeking to quash Smith’s request for a search warrant.

In a statement sent to CNN last year, the company said, “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith hopes the voice-activated Echo – which answers users’ questions, plays music, reads news and connects to other smart devices – will provide information on how a man came to be found dead in 31-year-old James Bates’ hot tub.

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Bates’ defense attorney, Kimberly Weber, says there is nothing useful on the device and applauds Amazon for protecting her client’s privacy. Bates, who was arrested in February on suspicion of first-degree murder, is presently free on a $350,000 bond. A discovery hearing in his case is scheduled for March.

Bates, who was arrested last year on suspicion of first-degree murder, is free on a $350,000 bond.

A discovery hearing in the case was scheduled for Wednesday, but it’s unclear if the hearing is still necessary now that Bates has acquiesced to the prosecutor’s request for the recordings.

This may be a first

As technology has become more integral to daily life, authorities have increasingly sought evidence from mobile phones, laptops, social media, even the “Warcraft” video game. Attempting to mine a smart speaker for information may be a first though.

Joel Reidenberg, the founding academic director for Fordham University’s Center for Law and Information Policy, told CNN it’s the first such case he’s seen, but he isn’t surprised that smart speakers are already the subject of a court battle.

While some might argue that voice technology such as Echo, Siri or Google Home, which assist users with queries and tasks, come with a different expectation of privacy than, say, social media postings or Internet searches, Reidenberg said he feels such an attitude is naive.

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According to Amazon, Echo works by constantly listening for the “wake word” – “Alexa” or “Amazon,” by default – and then records your voice and transfers it to a processor for analysis so that it can fulfill requests or answer questions. The recordings are streamed and stored remotely, and can be reviewed or deleted over time, Amazon says.

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“How is that any different from you sitting at your keyboard typing?” Reidenberg asked.

The case

The Amazon Echo is always listening for its wake word.
CNN
The Amazon Echo is always listening for its wake word.

The Amazon Echo entered the November 2015 murder case because someone present on the night of Collins’ death allegedly recalled hearing music streaming through the device that evening.

Bates had invited two friends – one of them former Georgia police officer Victor Collins, 47 – over to his Bentonville home, where they watched college football, drank beer and shot vodka, according to the search warrant affidavit filed in Benton County Circuit Court. The men decided to get into Bates’ hot tub and Bates said he went to bed around 1 a.m. When he awoke in the morning, Collins was floating face-down in the hot tub, the affidavit says.

Bates’ attorney, Kimberly Weber, says Collins was Bates’ friend, and his death was a tragic accident, possibly stemming from his drinking. Collins’ blood-alcohol content at the time of death was .32, four times the legal limit to drive in Arkansas, she said.

“It’s not a murder at all. It’s an accident,” she said, adding that she feels calling the case against her client circumstantial would be giving it too much credit.

Investigators contend in the affidavit there were signs of a struggle, including injuries to Collins and Bates, a broken shot glass, dried blood inside the home and indications the patio and hot tub had been hosed down before police arrived.

Another smart device, Bates’ water heater, points to an exorbitant amount of water being used in the early-morning hours, in what investigators believe was an attempt to cover up a crime, the affidavit says.

Weber argues the amount of water was unremarkable and nearly equal to the amount of water used in the home 12 hours earlier, she said.

CNN’s Tina Burnside and Keith Allen contributed to this report.