In our high-tech world, there are more ways than ever for bad guys to be bad guys. Computers and other gadgets have opened broad new vistas for the criminally inclined.
Fortunately, a high-tech world also gives cops some new tools. They can listen to and see things they never could before. They also can track bad guys without ever leaving the friendly confines of the local police station.
The latter comes courtesy of Global Positioning System devices that can be attached to suspects’ cars. As the bad guys drive from burglary to burglary, or from drug drop to drug drop, the GPS device can tell police where they are. Valley police already have nabbed at least one elusive suspect this way.
A Tribune story this past Sunday by Mark Flatten and Toni Laxson explored this technology. This was not done to make life harder for police. But with any expansion of police capabilities, the public has a right to know what’s going on because police power can and often does collide head-on with constitutional rights.
In this case, the concerns of Arizona defense lawyer Michael Black seem valid. Without restraints on use of the GPS devices, Black said, “The prospect for mischief is just rampant.” We do not want a police force with an unfettered ability to spy on citizens’ comings and goings.
While it’s true we citizens have no reasonable expectation of privacy while driving on public streets, it’s also true that our daily comings and goings are really no policeman’s business unless they involve lawbreaking. So a recent Washington state supreme court decision deserves applause.
In that decision, based on a provision in the state constitution that’s identical to one in ours, the court said police must get a court order before using GPS devices on people’s cars. Not doing so violates privacy rights, the court said.
The issue has yet to be litigated in Arizona. But it makes sense for police departments to be cautious in this regard. Nobody wants a legitimate criminal case thrown out on this kind of technicality. So as a matter of course, Arizona police departments should obtain court orders for every use of the GPS systems. Such orders, as is the case now with search and wiretap warrants, would have to be based on probable cause.
We hope this new crime-fighting tool works well. We hope even more fervently that it is never used to erode our delicate constitutional freedoms.