Johnson County Sheriff’s deputies occasionally use cell phones or GPS tracking devices, but electronic tracking is only one of a number of tools law enforcement officers use for surveillance.
“More often than not, it’s actual officers doing the surveillance,” Johnson County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Deputy Tom Erickson said.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last week in a case about electronic tracking, Erickson said it’s unlikely the eventual ruling will change the way the county sheriff’s office does business.
In the Supreme Court case, the drug conviction of Antoine Jones, a nightclub owner in Washington, D.C. was thrown out, because investigating officers used a GPS tracking device to track his movements. The appeals court said they needed a warrant in order to use the tracking device.
The sheriff’s office usually gets a warrant.
“I say, ‘usually,’ because I can’t tell you off the top of my head every case we’ve worked on. That’s normally how we do business anyway.”
The department has used GPS trackers in the past without warrants, but Erickson said it’s not a common occurrence.
Often, he explained, a GPS tracking device doesn’t provide enough information. The only thing it tells officers is that a certain vehicle was in a certain place at a certain time.
“Beyond that, it takes human intervention,” Erickson said. “Without someone knowing or seeing that it was you, I don’t know anything you did while you were there or even that you were driving the vehicle.”
Experts say in addition to GPS tracking, the upcoming Supreme Court case could affect the tracing of the nation’s 327 million cell phone users.
That’s another practice Deputy Erickson said receives limited use from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.
Cell phone tracking is used by dispatchers to pinpoint the location of incoming cell phone calls. But the technology isn’t perfect.
“If someone calls 9-1-1, depending on the age of the phone and the technology, we’re able to narrow down the location,” Erickson said. “But (cell phones) don’t give us an exact location. They can kind of triangulate an area, but it doesn’t tell us they’re at a particular address or anything.”
The sheriff’s office would most likely get a warrant before using cell phone triangulation for criminal investigations.
“Every state is different and every jurisdiction is different, but we tend to be a little more cautious and have all of our ducks in a row before we do something like that,” Erickson said.
County GPS surveillance limited