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ACLU seeks limits on D.C. police tracking technology

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The American Civil Liberties Union sounded the alarm on Wednesday over police officers' ability to use cellphone signals and license-plate-reading technology to track people inside the District.

A senior staff attorney from the organization's local chapter told the D.C. Council's Committee on the Judiciary it should consider legislation that imposes limits on how the technology may be used and sheds light on how the data is stored.

"Our personal movements in the city ought to be our personal business," Fritz Mulhauser said outside a hearing room, noting the technology's use is widespread and could expand. "There's no turning back the clock."

Committee chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, held the oversight hearing to elicit testimony from Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and other law enforcement agencies on a range of topics — from drunken-driving enforcement and police recruitment to prevention of rampant robberies and crimes against the transgender community.

In a recent ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said the Metropolitan Police Department needed a valid warrant to track a suspected drug dealer with a GPS device on his car.

The case, the United States v. Jones, "sent enormously important signals" that police must take care in how they track suspects, Mr. Mulhauser said.

Assistant Police Chief Peter J. Newsham said the department is complying with the ruling on GPS cases, although license-plate capture does not require a warrant because it amounts to snapshot data collection on public streets.

Officers obtain a warrant to acquire cellphone data that triangulates a person's location, except in emergency situations such as when someone's life is in danger, he said.

Other testimony at Wednesday's marathon hearing included Chief Lanier discussing the District's discontinued breath-test system — which has hampered the prosecution of drunken-driving cases for nearly two years. The police chief said the program should be corrected and active in about six months.

The District's problems with Breathalyzer accuracy has prompted the Metropolitan Police Department to use urine samples — although it has always been a testing option, along with blood testing — in the meantime.

Chief Lanier said the urine tests have at least one benefit — it is able to detect a startling number of drivers who are under the influence of PCP.

But she assured the committee that police are working with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to have an accurate Breathalyzer system in place by August or so.

"We're not going to stop our enforcement in the meantime," she said.

Also on Wednesday, activists highlighted a continuing disconnect between the police and advocates for gay, lesbian and transgender residents.

Jason Terry, a member of the D.C. Trans Coalition, said the police department has "abdicated its responsibility to keep trans people safe."

"Every time there is a murder in our community, it's amateur hour at MPD," Mr. Terry said, noting a recent string of violent crimes against transgender residents.

Mr. Terry said he would like to set up a meeting with Chief Lanier alongside a neutral third party, an idea that Mr. Mendelson called "a little harsh."

Chief Lanier pushed back on the coalition's claims in her testimony.

"When there's a hearing, all of a sudden there are all of these complaints that no one knew about," Chief Lanier said, noting the department goes out of its way to address transgender issues. "We really would like them to meet us halfway. … I just don't understand it.

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