Fri., January 10, 2014 3:34pm (EST)

Should Police Need A Warrant To Track Your Cell Phone?
By Ellen Reinhardt
Updated: 3 months ago

ATLANTA  —  
Law enforcement in Georgia can now track cell phones as they hunt criminals.
Law enforcement in Georgia can now track cell phones as they hunt criminals.
Just like you see on TV cop shows, law enforcement in Georgia can now track cell phones as they hunt criminals. But privacy concerns that emerged after national security leaks could restrict those efforts.

Frank Vincent Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, says technology like cell phone tracking helps close cases and gets criminals off the streets.

Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, admits law enforcement needs to be careful.

“A tremendous capability is now available to law enforcement to access vast amounts of information,” said Keenan. “ But with that, goes the danger of there being misuse and violation of privacy, civil liberties by law enforcement. And when that happens, then you have mistrust by the public of what law enforcement is doing.”

He points out that police have access to driver license records and lots of other records. It’s currently a felony for an officer to misuse that information. But there are no restrictions in Georgia on how police use some of the new technology, such as tracking cell phones.

State representative John Pezold, a republican from Fortson, has introduced a bill that would require law enforcement to get a search warrant before being allowed to track cell phones.

Exceptions would include if the cell phone is stolen, if the cell phone owner consents to obtaining such information, or there is a life-threatening emergency. Any evidence that would be obtained in violation would not be admissible in court or administrative proceedings. Officers who violate the law would face civil penalties of $50 for each offense.

Keenan understands the need for some restrictions. But he says requiring a search warrant is too high a standard. He would support requiring a court order.

Whatever legislation comes down the pike, Keenan says officials like the GBI must be open with the public about their methods.

“Law enforcement must become more transparent in how we are using technology, and be prepared to explain what we’re doing,” said Keenan.

Does New Technology Mean New Rules?

The latest technology allows law enforcement to use drones, but drone technology is expensive. Keenan says he’s not aware of any law enforcement agencies in Georgia who have drones.

Other technology includes license plate readers. Police have used the devices in Georgia for the past 15 years, according to Keenan. Cameras mounted on an officer’s police car record images of each license plate that passes within 15 feet. Those images are sent to a computer that automatically compares them to a GBI database of outstanding arrest warrants.

This week, the state Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving an arrest in the City of Norcross where the officer used a license plate reader.

The officer stopped a car registered to Enrique Sanchez because Sanchez was wanted on an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court on traffic citations. Sanchez’s mother, Sonia Rodriguez, was driving the car with another passenger.

After a search of the vehicle, Rodriguez was arrested on a marijuana charge. Her lawyer, Eric Crawford, claims that once the officer realized that Sanchez was not in the car, he had no right to search the vehicle. Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter argues that there was a sufficient basis for the traffic stop.

“The purpose is to make a relatively quick decision as the car passes the license plate reader as to whether it is a wanted car, meaning it is a stolen car, or that someone in that car may be wanted for a crime,” said Rotondo.

Keenan says standards do need to be adopted for these new technologies, and he emphasizes that privacy concerns are shared by law enforcement.

But Rotondo says as Georgia looks to regulate newer technology, officials need to make sure that useful tools for catching criminals aren’t eliminated.