Ky. task force using warrantless tracking

RICHMOND, Ky. (AP) - A central Kentucky drug task force is using
satellite-based tracking devices, sometimes without warrants from
judges, to keep track of suspects in their cars.
The Richmond Register reported that the devices use the same
Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that portable navigation
devices and cellular phones use to give directions, a practice that
has members of the local legal community concerned.
The Central Kentucky Area Drug Task Force, a multi-county
agency, has spent nearly $18,000 over the past two years to
purchase a variety of systems designed to allow officers to track
the movement of vehicles covertly using GPS satellites.
Task force director Rick Johnson said his agency does own and
has used three of the devices. But, Johnson declined to give any
specific details beyond stating that they were installed without
obtaining warrants.
Johnson also said that Commonwealth's Attorney David Smith,
whose office prosecutes all felony cases in Madison Circuit Court,
was not being notified of the use of GPS trackers "because he
hasn't asked which cases they're being used in."
Smith said he expected information of that nature to be
submitted to his office without prompting.
"I would think that it should be included in his case report,"
Smith said.
Defense attorneys say using the tracking device without a
judge's approval may be skirting the law.
"It is disappointing that anyone in law enforcement defends
this practice," said Wes Browne, a former prosecutor in Madison
County now in private practice. "This is harmful to justice, not
The newspaper reported that the task force bought the three GPS
devices from Coleman Technologies Inc., a Florida-based firm whose
Web site touts its "AGenT" tracking devices as made for the
"exclusive use of the law enforcement community."
The company's literature says the device communicates using
cellular phone networks, and can store up to 200,000 location
measurements in its onboard memory.
Johnson said the devices could be installed outside the target
vehicle's passenger compartment without a warrant as long as the
vehicle was parked on public property.
"I can tell you those are perfectly legal to use," Johnson
said. "If it wasn't, we wouldn't be doing it."
Madison County Sheriff Nelson O'Donnell confirmed his office
does own one of the devices and would not be using it if it were
"The last thing I would do is intrude on anyone's
constitutional rights," O'Donnell said.
Richmond Police Chief Larry Brock said his department owns more
than one, but said they were purchased "long before" he became
chief in July 2007.
"We do have and utilize tracking devices in certain, very
specific, cases," Brock said.
While there are no cases directly addressing whether a warrant
is needed to use the device, Johnson said it appears no warrant is
required to do so.
"A lot of people would prefer a court order to do it, but
there's no law that says you have to have a court order to do it,"
Johnson said. "If they did, I would certainly be getting a warrant
every time."
Johnson said the device doesn't tell police anything they
couldn't find out on their own by driving by someone's car.
"It's not going to tell you what the person inside the
vehicle's doing, it's not going to tell you anything, it just tells
you where it is," he said.
Criminal defense attorney Mike Eubanks said warrants should be
required to use the device, if for no other reason than to protect
the use of evidence at trial.
"From a practical standpoint, as a law enforcement official why
would you risk having this evidence, obtained by warrantless GPS
tracking, tossed at trial when a warrant could be obtained, unless
they know that what they are doing would not be sanctioned by a
court through a search warrant?" Eubanks asked.
Information from: Richmond Register,

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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