Iowa City Police Chief: I agree with Supreme Court about GPS
It’s no surprise or news that technology is constantly being adapted and used by law enforcement for various cases. Hidden camera investigations, audio recordings and other means of covert surveillance have all become regular and normal means of gathering intelligence. But how far do these investigations go? Are they bordering on invasion of privacy?
The Supreme Court recently ruled that it is illegal to place a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle without proper warrants, allowing the privacy advocacy community to breathe a big sigh of relief. But how has this affected law enforcement officers who rely on this technology? In Iowa City, Police Chief Same Hargadine is completely supportive of the decision.
“I’m surprised it’s taken this long,” Hargadine said in a public statement. “I would agree with the court that this is an invasion of privacy. You’re putting something on someone’s car.”
Police investigators in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area have been using GPS trackers in their cases for years, and believe that they will continue to use them to gather information on their suspects. Linn County had already made it mandatory for officers to acquire a warrant before placing a GPS tracking device on vehicle. Officers in Johnson County, however, have not yet been made to follow the change.
Regardless of who has already been doing it or not been doing it, the Supreme Court has made it mandatory for all agencies now. Many agencies feel that the new law could potentially raise a few problems in criminal investigations, as warrants can take time to process and there could only be a limited window to gather evidence.
“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 went on to say that officers are specially trained to write warrants quickly, and that warrants can usually be processed fairly fast with few exceptions.
“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.