Corridor law officers say new rules for GPS tracking of suspects make sense

Supreme Court has ruled law enforcement needs a search warrant before using the technology

Corridor law enforcement agencies are not surprised by a Supreme Court ruling that requires a search warrant before investigators can use GPS devices to track suspects. Agencies in Linn County were already doing so. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Corridor law enforcement agencies are not surprised by a Supreme Court ruling that requires a search warrant before investigators can use GPS devices to track suspects. Agencies in Linn County were already doing so. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

New technologies are emerging daily and global connectivity has Big Brother paranoia running high, so Eastern Iowa authorities are not surprised by a Supreme Court ruling requiring a warrant before investigators use GPS technology to track suspects.

“I’m surprised it’s taken this long,” said Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine, “and I would agree with the court that this is an invasion of privacy. You’re putting something on someone’s car.”

Iowa City and Cedar Rapids police, along with the sheriff’s offices in Johnson and Linn counties, have been using GPS technology as an investigative tool for years and expect the use will grow. Linn County agencies already apply for search warrants before using the technology, according to department heads, while Johnson County agencies haven’t yet made that a practice.

Either way, the paperwork will be a requirement from now on. The top court earlier this year ruled unanimously that police must get a judge to sign a search warrant before tapping GPS technology for a bird’s-eye view of suspects.

Law enforcement agencies nationwide have raised concerns about complications the mandate could create, potentially stalling cases, but local authorities said they’re hopeful that won’t happen.

“The challenge would be if we needed one at 3 a.m. on a Sunday and you’ve got to wake up a judge,” Hargadine said. “That doesn’t always go well.”

He said officers are trained in writing search warrants, and the paperwork typically winds its way through the system quickly.

“It makes sense that we’re jumping through the proper hoops,” Hargadine said. “You’re always on much safer ground if you’ve obtained a warrant.”

The Iowa City Police Department has one of its own GPS tracking devices, dubbed a “bird dog,” and it has access to other shared devices with Johnson County and state agencies.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said he doesn’t expect any major holdups with the mandate, although time will tell, he said.

“It could stall the process a little bit,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a certain window when you want to put it on. As long as this doesn’t prohibit us from getting in that window, it’s not a problem.”

Once the paperwork is in front of a judge, Pulkrabek said, he isn’t concerned about obtaining approval. Officers have good reasons for wanting to use GPS trackers, he said, and they can easily show probable cause.

“Obviously, we don’t believe it would be necessary to ever use one on some random vehicle we just wanted to watch,” he said. “We are going to be focusing on a specific case, and we’ll have documentation to show we have a need for it.”

The devices most commonly are used in drug-related cases. As the technology becomes more common, some agencies are putting trackers on common stolen goods — like money kept in bank vaults or copper wire in industrial yards.

Pulkrabek said he understands the need for a warrant, even if he wishes there wasn’t one.

“I want to believe that law enforcement agencies are above board on how they do things and this isn’t necessary,” he said, “but I understand that they’re trying to make it a little more difficult to make sure law enforcement is crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s.

“I understand the whole big-brother issue,” Pulkrabek said.

Local agencies don’t keep track of how often they use GPS devices, saying they’d have to sift through narratives in hundreds of cases to determine that.

At the Cedar Rapids Police Department, officers have been tasked for years with acquiring search warrants before using GPS trackers — just to be safe, said Sgt. Cristy Hamblin. The extra step, she said, ensures any evidence gathered will be admissible in court.

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said his deputies, too, have been getting search warrants before using GPS. The goal is to not waste officer time and resources.

“There is no reason to go after the technology if you find out later that you can’t use it,” he said.

Local authorities said they can, in emergencies, use tracking technology to find someone without a warrant. If a child has been abducted, for example, officers can contact a suspect’s cellphone provider to locate the suspect. After the fact, officers have to show probable cause.

With technology like OnStar being installed in many newer vehicles, officers said they might increasingly have access to GPS evidence without installing the device themselves. That evidence would still require a search warrant.

Roxann Ryan, a senior criminal intelligence analyst with the Iowa Department of Public Safety, said GPS technology has become more popular in criminal investigations largely because the devices are less expensive. Ryan doesn’t expect the warrant requirement will hamper use.

“If something is cheaper, even if it’s not a key piece of evidence, it might be something worth using,” she said.

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