- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2000

The technology that has revolutionized the way America works and plays is also changing the way police catch criminals and those changes have some civil libertarians concerned.

From Vienna, Va., where unblinking electronic cameras monitor red lights, to Montgomery County, Md., where police use thermal imaging devices to "look" inside houses, high-tech law enforcement increasingly means authorities can see and hear just about anything, anywhere.

Just ask Gregory Hinton.

The twice-convicted bank robber is facing another stint behind bars after FBI agents used satellite tracking technology to follow Hinton in the moments after a Springfield, Va., bank robbery.

Agents suspected Hinton and had persuaded a judge to allow them to put a tracking device on his van. The hunch paid off when the FBI used satellite technology known as a global positioning system, or GPS to pinpoint Hinton's van after the robbery. He was pulled over and officers found about $42,000 worth of cash from the bank.

Georgetown law professor Peter Rubin said the government's ability to track down a person via satellite is chilling, if not Orwellian.

"The government has information it wouldn't have otherwise with the technology," Mr. Rubin said. "It is a further invasion of privacy."

Tools such as night vision and the Internet are making it easier for the police to catch crooks, he acknowledged. Answering the question, "Are they using it just on the bad guys?" is much more difficult, he said.

Bradford Brown, chairman of George Mason University's school of law technology and law center, said what we are seeing now is the law having to catch up to the technology.

"A lot of the old laws aren't particularly applicable to what we have today," Mr. Brown said. "And in a lot of cases, judges are wrestling with some of the issues themselves."

Craig B. English, who represented Hinton in the Springfield bank robbery case, said the technology puts powerful tools in the hands of police. But that's not necessarily a bad thing for defendants, said the Alexandria, Va., lawyer. The precise nature of the evidence gathered, according to Mr. English, could also help make police officers more accountable.

"Forensic evidence … gives a neutral opinion," Mr. English said. "So when policemen claim that they were somewhere, we can verify that they were there. It's not skewed or slanted like the D.C. police."

Montgomery County police spokesman Derek Baliles disagrees with those critics who contend high-tech police work tramples on constitutional rights.

Mr. Baliles said his department usually obtains a search warrant before using electronic surveillance equipment but he adds that a warrant isn't always necessary.

If a suspect is on the run in a wooded area, for example, police are going to use thermal imaging devices to track him, warrant or not.

"The guy doesn't have a right to his thermal energy," Mr. Baliles said.

In December, the department used thermal imaging devices to "see" heating lamps and marijuana plants behind the walls of a Silver Spring, Md., house. In that instance, a warrant was obtained to use the technology.

"Without a search warrant, it would never make the preliminary hearing stage," Mr. Baliles said.

The town of Vienna has recently expanded its use of video cameras to catch people running red lights, said police Lt. Daniel A. Marcey. There will be a total of six cameras at key intersections by the end of the summer, he said.

For his department, the cameras have been effective in cutting costs and increasing the number of $50 tickets it dishes out.

"You figure the camera is there 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Mr. Marcey said. "It's more than any one officer can do. While an officer is writing a ticket, you can have three more violations."

Police in the District of Columbia have been making good use of GPS technology, said Sgt. Donald Yates of the electronic-surveillance unit.

"It seems to be a helpful tool. Early results are promising," Mr. Yates said.

He said he doesn't feel the technology violates a person's rights because "vehicles go up and down the streets all day."

"I wouldn't see it as an invasion of privacy," he said.

John Cassat, a spokesman for Garmin International, which manufactures GPS, said similar tracking devices can be bought at most electronics stores. While the devices used by law enforcement are more sophisticated, they still must rely on the same 24 satellites that can accurately pinpoint a location the size of a desk and map it out on a computer screen.

"We kind of demystify what they do," Mr. Cassat said. "We're using the same satellites and have the same potential for accuracy."

Sensors attached to cars the police track cost no more than $200, and a handheld tracking device can cost as little as $149, he said.

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