By COLLIN KRIZMANICH
Capital News Service
LANSING — Turn on any crime show, such as CSI, and you’ll see a scene like this: The police identify a suspect, and within seconds a tech expert has traced the cell phone to the perp’s exact GPS coordinates.
“I’ve had several people ask me, ‘You can already do that, right?’” said Terry Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. “But it’s not that easy.”
While federal legislation allows cellular providers to turn over a user’s location information, it does not require them to do so, unless the police have a warrant.
In some cases–such as an abduction or a wandering Alzheimer’s patient– the time taken to obtain a warrant may mean the difference between life and death.
Across the country, 17 states have passed what is commonly referred to as “Kelsey Smith Acts,” designed to expedite cellular location tracking.
A bill recently introduced in the Michigan legislature by Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth Township, aims to make Michigan the 18th state to enact the law.
The bill is named for Kelsey Smith, an 18-year-old from Overland Park, Kansas. In 2007 she was abducted in the middle of the day at a local retail store.
Despite investigators’ request to track Smith’s cell phone, it took four days for her provider, Verizon, to provide the information. She was found murdered shortly after officials received the tracking information.
If enacted, the Kelsey Smith Act would require cellular companies to disclose device location information in emergency situations in which a law enforcement officer determines an imminent risk of death or physical harm to the user.
“As the parent of two teenage girls, I thought it was common-sense legislation to track down people who may be in trouble,” said Heise, who recently reintroduced the legislation.
Heise first introduced similar legislation in 2013, but the bill never made it out of the House Criminal Justice Committee.
It’s not just kidnapping cases where tracking cell phone locations can come in handy.
“I once had a man come to the station in duress, saying that his wife was going to kill herself,” said Rich Rosati, detective lieutenant with the Grosse Pointe Farms Police Department.
Rosati was able to contact the cellular company, which cooperated in tracking the cell phone, and determined the location of the woman within a half mile. Rosati and the woman’s husband were able to use this information to deduce where she had gone and reached her before she followed through on her threats.
While tracking cell phone locations can be an important tactical tool for law enforcement, if used improperly it can also raise privacy concerns.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, who couldn’t be reached for comment, opposed the legislation introduced in 2013, but according to the House Fiscal Agency, have a neutral position to the current legislation.
“Law enforcement needs to understand what we do can be intrusive, and needs restraint,” Jungel said.
What if an individual in law enforcement were to improperly use the tactic to track the location of an individual for personal matters?
Heise’s bill includes language that would punish improper use of the tactic as a misdemeanor offense, punishable by a $500 fine and up to 93 days in jail.
Punishment would come not only from the state, but also from the officer’s employer.
Sen. Rick Jones, R-Eaton County, who spent over 30 years in law enforcement, said abusing the cell phone tracking would certainly be grounds for termination.
Both Jungel and Rosati agreed.
“You cannot use your authority in a way that could compromise somebody personally,” Rosati said. “The state might only charge you with a misdemeanor, but you’re not going to be a police officer in this department.”
By COLLIN KRIZMANICH