Police fire GPS 'cannon' to track suspects, reduce car chases
Using technology that seems inspired by James Bond films, police in Iowa, Florida, Colorado and Arizona are firing GPS “bullets” at fleeing cars to reduce the need for high-speed chases.
The technology, built by Virginia Beach, Va.-based StarChase, includes a compressed-air launcher similar to a T-shirt cannon mounted in the grill of a police cruiser and a sticky GPS projectile tag that contains a miniature GPS module embedded in a industrial-strength adhesive compound. Once the projectile is fired and attaches to the speeding car, the officer can slow down, because the GPS tag on suspect's car transmits its position coordinates via wireless modem to dispatch. The dispatcher then views the location and movements of the tagged vehicle in near real-time on a digital roadmap via a secure Web portal.
“If you had told me 16 years ago that I would have had a cannon on the front of my car, I wouldn't have believed it,” Iowa state trooper Tim Sieleman, told KCCI 8 News of Des Moines.
Iowa state troopers are testing the product; currently one cruiser is outfitted with the device, and the department has plans to outfit at least five more cars with it. Arizona law enforcement officers have been using the system for more than two years, particularly to combat drug trafficking at the U.S. border. St. Petersburg, Fla. police are outfitting an unnamed number of cars, both marked and unmarked, with the tracking system for a six-month test.
StarChase installed the air cannons in test vehicles free of charge, but police departments have to purchase their own GPS units. The system is priced at $5,000, with each GPS projectile costing $500.
The system still has some imperfections to be worked out. In demonstration of the technology to the media in St. Petersburg, only one GPS tag stuck to a car out of five units fired, reported WTSP 10 News of Tampa.
Assistant Police Chief Melanie Bevan is undeterred. “The reality is even if it just has one good application, if it works one time ... then at least in this test and evaluation phase it’s done some good,” Bevan said during the system demonstration.
Use of the technology could possibly face a legal challenge, as a federal appeals court in Philadelphia recently ruled that the government must obtain a warrant to attach a GPS unit to a car, reported the Washington Post.
However, the way StarChase is being used by police would likely be allowed under the legal definition of “hot pursuit.”
A recent ruling in U.S. v. Katzen, a slap-on magnetic GPS device was attached to a car to track a trio of brothers suspected of pharmaceutical robberies in New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The police did not obtain a warrant for the device and used evidence from the device to track the vehicle to a recently burglarized RiteAid, whereupon they searched the car and allegedly found items from the RiteAid.
"A GPS search," the court found, "extends the police intrusion well past the time it would normally take officers to enter a target vehicle and locate, extract, or examine the then-existing evidence."
The Katzen case expanded upon a recent Supreme Court case on GPS tracking, U.S. v. Jones. In that case, the court decided that “attaching a GPS device to a target car constituted a physical intrusion upon the vehicle owner’s private property.” The court, while ruling that GPS tracking constituted a search, did not address whether it's reasonable to conduct such a search without a warrant.
In response to the Jones ruling, Karen Jaffe, CEO of StarChase, said the ruling does not affect the use of its system. “Even though Jones makes clear that attaching the StarChase GPS device and collecting information from it constitutes a ‘search,’ the use of the StarChase Pursuit Management System is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment because the officers have probable cause to believe the vehicle they are tracking is being used in the commission or active escape from a crime. The StarChase Pursuit Management System is deployed in exigent circumstances, primarily, the high-speed pursuit, stolen vehicle or other in-progress felony. Such use under Jones remains constitutional,” she said in a statement.
Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.