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ACLU: Many law enforcement agencies obtain cellphone tracking information without a warrant

Published: Thursday, April 5 2012 1:23 p.m. MDT

A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union finds police in Utah and across the country may be tracking cellphone calls and GPS data without obtaining a search warrant.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union finds police in Utah and across the country may be tracking cellphone calls and GPS data without obtaining a search warrant.

The ACLU requested public records from 383 law enforcement agencies around the country to see how often they were tracking cellphones and if they were obtaining warrants to do so. More than 200 agencies responded, including several in Utah.

Most replied they track cell phones to investigate crime or in tracking in emergencies, such as missing persons or suicide threats. Only 10 agencies said they had never tracked cellphones.

In Utah, the ACLU asked Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Weber County Sheriff’s Office, Unified Police, Salt Lake City Police Department, West Valley City Police Department, and Utah County Sheriff’s Office.

Utah County did not respond, and Washington County denied their request.

The West Valley City Police Department said it do not directly access "private, state and/or federal databases that might store cellphone locations." 

But Weber County, Unified Police, and Salt Lake City responded that they access cellphone location records in certain situations.

“By far the most frequent use is by our Search and Rescue Bureau,” wrote Lt. Mark Lowther, the public information officer for the Weber County Sheriff’s Office. “When an individual is lost and family indicates that they have a cellphone on their person or with them, our search and rescue coordinator contacts the cell phone provider and requests information from the provider relating to the location of the cellphone.”

Lowther said the records are accessed "very infrequently, probably no more than once or twice a year.”

The Unified Police Department doesn't typically use cellphone location records in its investigation, said Mike Barker, an attorney for the Unified Police Department.

"The most common situations in which our officers use cellphone tracking records are those involving a threat to human life, such as locating lost or stranded hikers, missing children, or suicidal individuals," Barker said in a prepared statement. "In those cases we get consent from a responsible party."

He said in rare instances tracking records are used as an investigative tool. The most common use is in conjunction with federal agencies trying to locate dangerous fugitives. In those cases, the department follows the U.S. Marshals' policy.

The ACLU report shows most law enforcement agencies do not get probable cause warrants to track cellphones, which troubles a local civil rights attorney.

"The Constitution protects people's rights, and you don't allow law enforcement or other government agencies access to that kind of information unless a court says they can do that," attorney Brian Barnard said.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of U.S. v. Jones that law enforcement entities using GPS trackers to monitor vehicle movements without a search warrant violates the Fourth Amendment, which protects guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In response to the ruling, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said that ruling was “a positive step in the right direction, (but) further action is needed in order to prevent the government from tracking people through other devices, like smartphones.”

In June of last year, Chaffetz and Sen. Ron Wyden, R-Ore., introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act, which would require police to get a probable cause warrant before accessing cellphone information.

“Quite frankly, the government and law enforcement should not be able to track somebody indefinitely without their knowledge or consent, or without obtaining a warrant from a judge,” Chaffetz said when he introduced the bill.

E-mail: vvo-duc@ksl.com

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