washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Sunday Outlook > Editorial Page Columns

New Tools for the Crime Solver's Kit

CDR and GPS: An alphabet soup of technology is helping law officials make our roads safer.

Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page B08

On Christmas Eve 2002, as snow fell on Silver Spring, Neris Roldan was driving along a slippery stretch of Norbeck Road when a pickup heading the other way crossed the line and hit her car head-on. The truck driver, Keith Lee, fled the scene; Neris Roldan was killed, and her husband, George, was critically injured.

No one witnessed the crash, but both vehicles had crash data recorders (CDRs) -- which are standard in some vehicles. CDRs are similar to the black boxes carried by airplanes. From the CDRs, police were able to determine that while Roldan was driving under the speed limit, Lee had been driving at 71 mph five seconds before the collision -- a dangerous speed in the 40 mph zone in any weather, but especially reckless in treacherous winter conditions.

The CDRs also revealed information about when the drivers had hit their brakes, lending support to the accident reconstruction analysis that showed Lee was at fault. Lee was arrested, pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and failure to remain at the scene of an accident, and is serving an eight-year prison term.

In July 2003 Carl E. Jones Jr. dragged Marna Plaia out of her Mercedes SUV, threw her to the ground and sped off in Plaia's car with her two toddlers strapped into the back seat.

Fortunately, the vehicle was equipped with TeleAid, a Global Positioning System (GPS) that pinpoints a vehicle's location and enables communication between the car's occupants and TeleAid employees. The system -- which ordinarily provides directions or helps motorists in case of an accident or a breakdown -- allowed TeleAid employees to track Jones's progress. Police set up the roadblock that eventually resulted in his capture and the safe return of the two children.

TeleAid also was able to listen to the sounds from inside the vehicle and to relay information indicating that the children were unharmed, which helped the police make decisions regarding strategy for apprehending Jones. Jones was convicted of assault and carjacking and was sentenced to 40 years in jail.

For years, law enforcement and the criminal justice system have benefited from technological advances. Fingerprint technology, electronic surveillance and DNA analysis have made significant contributions to the ability of police to solve crimes and have assisted prosecutors in the effort to secure convictions.

Devices such as LoJack and radar guns also have aided the police in locating stolen cars and stopping dangerous drivers. The CDRs, which proved Lee's responsibility for the death of Neris Roldan, and the Global Positioning System, which helped police apprehend Jones and rescue the Plaia children, are invaluable tools for investigators and prosecutors.

Critics worry that these tools threaten our right to privacy. But the information provided by these devices isn't private -- speed can be monitored by a police officer standing beside the road with a radar gun, and stolen cars can be followed by police cruisers and helicopters. Further, crash data recorders cannot be downloaded remotely, so police can access them only after a crash and even then only the five seconds leading up to the collision.

Police don't use satellite communication systems such as GPS to keep track of the everyday movements of citizens; these methods are employed only in extraordinary or emergency situations. Even in the Jones carjacking, police did not listen into the car directly or track the car's progress themselves but had this information relayed to them by TeleAid workers. No secrecy is involved with either CDRs or GPS devices -- vehicle owner's manuals contain information about their existence and functions.

Just as we are employing more sophisticated DNA analysis and other technological developments in the criminal justice system, so too must we take advantage of progress in automotive technology to improve investigations and prosecutions in vehicle-related crimes.

-- Douglas F. Gansler

is the state's attorney

for Montgomery County.



© 2005 The Washington Post Company