By Kelsey Givens
Illegal cell phone tracking seems to be a problem plaguing many law enforcement agencies nationwide, but Sheriff Tony DeMeo ensures that the Nye County Sheriff’s Department is not suffering from the same problem.
“We do things legally here,” DeMeo said.
An article in the Las Vegas Sun Sunday reported that the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada conducted a study and found many law enforcement agencies in Nevada are using cell phone tracking to find suspects.
And they aren’t always doing it with proper court approval.
In order to track a cell phone for anything other than life-threatening situations, like missing or kidnapped people, DeMeo said, police have to get a warrant to request information from cell phone carriers.
According to the article in the Las Vegas Sun, last year a judge found that the North Las Vegas Police Department illegally obtained the location of a murder suspect through his carrier.
Evidence collected after illegally tracing him was still allowed into the trial, however, because there is an absence of state law regulating this type of activity.
The article also stated the Reno Police Department admitted in an internal document that cell phone tracking has been “misused” to locate stolen phones in the past.
“Some cell carriers have been complying with such requests, but they cannot be expected to continue to do so as it is outside the scope of the law,” the document stated. “Continued misuse by law enforcement agencies will undoubtedly backfire.”
According to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S Constitution, citizens are protected from unreasonable search and seizure by the government.
Finding a suspect’s location by tracing his or her cell phone could be considered a violation of that amendment in certain cases.
The article was written in response to a New York Times article published April 1, about cell phone tracking by law enforcement departments nationwide.
It discussed the legality of cell phone tracing and what laws have been put in place to control or regulate it.
In the article it said that in 2010, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia, a “judge could require the authorities to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before demanding cell phone records or location information from a provider.”
The article noted that another case similar to this one is pending in Texas in the Fifth Circuit.
DeMeo said while the Nye County could legally use cell phone tracking with a warrant, there are usually much better ways to find a suspect.
“We use the technology that is appropriate to the situation,” he said. “We have other ways of tracking down criminals than tracking cell phones and we’ve been doing it that way far before cell phones were around. We don’t rely on technology as much as other resources like knocking on doors and actually talking to people,” he said.
DeMeo added that those who rely on technology too heavily to solve crimes for them could be in trouble if one day that technology wasn’t around or wasn’t available for them to use.
“Technology can be a crutch. If you go to crime scene just looking to get DNA you’ll miss the basic stuff right in front of you, which could really be what solves the case,” DeMeo said.
“We really try to imprint that message on the people coming into the academy or coming in new to the job,” he added.
And in addition to these better ways of finding suspects, DeMeo said most of the time the cell phone companies will not release records to police without some kind of court document requesting their release.
Aside from there being better ways to find suspects in a case, tracking cell phones without a warrant could cause problems legally down the road.
“There’s a process for cell phone tracking in the state of Nevada, you have to get a warrant to request information,” DeMeo said. “This problem is, if you skirt the law and it turns out to be a case and it turns out there is more involved there, you have tainted the evidence because you didn’t go about collecting it the right way.”
When evidence is tainted, or obtained illegally, it has the potential to be thrown out and unusable should the case make it to the courts.
“It’s better to play it safe than try and look at things and argue in court. Even when we have the right to look at something without a warrant I always say ‘go get a warrant’ just in case,” DeMeo said.
DeMeo added that he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to put themselves in a situation where the evidence they spent time collecting could be thrown out simply because they didn’t get the consent of the court to do so.
“I don’t understand why you would want to do that. If you’re going to rely on that evidence it’s very difficult to bring that into court,” he said.