Police Turn to Secret Weapon: GPS Device
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Someone was attacking women in Fairfax County and Alexandria, grabbing them from behind and sometimes punching and molesting them before running away. After logging 11 cases in six months, police finally identified a suspect.
David Lee Foltz Jr., who had served 17 years in prison for rape, lived near the crime scenes. To figure out if Foltz was the assailant, police pulled out their secret weapon: They put a Global Positioning System device on Foltz's van, which allowed them to track his movements.
Police said they soon caught Foltz dragging a woman into a wooded area in Falls Church. After his arrest on Feb. 6, the string of assaults suddenly stopped. The break in the case relied largely on a crime-fighting tool they would rather not discuss.
"We don't really want to give any info on how we use it as an investigative tool to help the bad guys," said Officer Shelley Broderick, a Fairfax police spokeswoman. "It is an investigative tool for us, and it is a very new investigative tool."
Across the country, police are using GPS devices to snare thieves, drug dealers, sexual predators and killers, often without a warrant or court order. Privacy advocates said tracking suspects electronically constitutes illegal search and seizure, violating Fourth Amendment rights of protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and is another step toward George Orwell's Big Brother society. Law enforcement officials, when they discuss the issue at all, said GPS is essentially the same as having an officer trail someone, just cheaper and more accurate. Most of the time, as was done in the Foltz case, judges have sided with police.
With the courts' blessing, and the ever-declining cost of the technology, many analysts believe that police will increasingly rely on GPS as an effective tool in investigations and that the public will hear little about it. Last year, FBI agents used a GPS device while investigating an embezzlement scheme to steal from District taxpayers, attaching one to a suspect's Jaguar.
"I've seen them in cases from New York City to small towns -- whoever can afford to get the equipment and plant it on a car," said John Wesley Hall, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "And of course, it's easy to do. You can sneak up on a car and plant it at any time."
Most police departments in the Washington region resist disclosing whether they use GPS to track suspects. D.C. police spokeswoman Traci Hughes said D.C. police do not use the technique. Police departments in Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties and Alexandria declined to discuss the issue.
Cpl. Clinton Copeland, a Prince George's County police spokesman, said his department does use the technique. "But I don't think that's something [detectives] would be too happy to put out there like that," Copeland said. "They do have different techniques they like to use on suspects, but they don't really want people to know."
Details on how police use GPS usually become public when the use of the device is challenged in court. Such cases have revealed how police in Washington state arrested a man for killing his 9-year-old daughter: the GPS device attached to his truck led them to where he had buried her.
Cases have shown how detectives in New York caught a drug-runner after monitoring his car as he bought and sold methamphetamine. In Wisconsin, police tracked two suspected burglars by attaching a GPS device to their car and apprehending them after burglarizing a house.
The Foltz case offers a rare glimpse into how a Washington area police department uses GPS. Foltz's attorney, Chris Leibig, challenged police in court last week and tried to have the GPS evidence thrown out. He argued at a hearing at Arlington County General District Court that police needed a warrant since the device tracked Foltz's vehicle on private and public land. The judge disagreed, and the evidence will be used at Foltz's trial, which will begin Oct. 6. Foltz was charged in the Feb. 6 attack, but not in the others.