GPS trackers considered a way to avoid police pursuits

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Minnesota law enforcement agencies are looking to GPS trackers as a way to reduce high-speed chases as state lawmakers work to remove all legal barriers to the technology.

ST PAUL, Minn. – Ramsey County Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Kill has a new tool in his toolbox when it comes to dealing with stolen cars.

He is one of the officers trained to use the StarChase GPS tracking device which can launch a projectile from the grid of his patrol vehicle and attach itself to a stolen vehicle. The idea is to give officers a safer way to track stolen cars without the need for a high-speed chase.

“If we can get this on a stolen vehicle right away and deploy a tracker, we can back up and monitor the car on a computer,” Deputy Kill told KARE.

The device uses laser targeting to improve accuracy and fires the projectile using compressed air. When an officer cocks the device, it builds up air pressure and heats the glue inside the canister so it has a better chance of attaching to the back of the suspect’s vehicle.

Kill said they work best within 20ft and would ideally be deployed before the officer turns on the lightbars, alerting the driver that something is going on.

“It’s a perfect scenario where you want to launch the device before you try to stop traffic on that vehicle because it’s likely to leak. That’s been happening more often lately; as soon as you turn on your fires, they go out on you.”

Ramsey County purchased three of the StarChase units with a grant from the Minnesota Department of Commerce. Kill said the units cost $4,700 each, plus $1,200 per year for the company’s GPS tracking services.

In the meantime, state lawmakers are working to remove any possible legal impediments to the use of these devices in that state. Rep. Kelly Moller, a Democrat from Shoreview, is the author of the House bill dealing with trackers. Senator Mark Johnson, and Republican from East Grand Forks, has the Senate version of the legislation.

Rep. Moller, who works as a prosecutor, told fellow lawmakers that car thieves essentially waive their Fourth Amendment rights to unlawful search and seizure when they steal a car. But there is a state law that needs to be updated to make GPS trackers perfectly legal.

“Even though the Fourth Amendment allows this technology to be used in these types of urgent circumstances, our current statute makes it a serious offense for law enforcement to use GPS technology on a leaky stolen car unless unless they have the owner’s consent,” Moller explained during a Public Safety Committee hearing on the bill.

Moller cited a Robbinsdale police chase in December that claimed the lives of two teenage boys, and a Ramsey County chase that started in Maplewood, ending in the deaths of two teenage passengers. In this case, the deputy had lost sight of the car he was chasing before it crashed.

“These pursuits pose a risk to public safety, risking the lives of innocent drivers who are on the road, officers trying to stop these cars, and anyone in these stolen cars,” Moller said.

“Using such technology can allow law enforcement to keep their eyes on the fleeing stolen vehicle until they can safely apprehend the suspect.”

Ramsey County Deputy Sheriff Mike Martin, who testified in favor of Moller’s bill, said that in certain circumstances police can get permission from the owner to track a stolen car or work with the manufacturer to access OnStar or other in-car GPS technology.

But in some cases, Martin said, those GPS connections were interrupted.

“It would help us reduce the risk to public safety, as well as the stolen vehicle recovery mission,” Martin told lawmakers.

Moller’s bill in its current form would require GPS tracking to only occur for 24 hours after the projectile attaches to the stolen vehicle, unless law enforcement obtains a court order to extend the time window.

The legislation would also require police departments to remove the GPS tracker once they recover the stolen vehicle.

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