There's a lot of hype bubbling up over a new product aimed at helping police track fleeing suspects. The StarChase system being used by cops in Florida and Iowa allows police officers to fire "a miniature GPS module encased in a tracking projectile/tag" from a "launcher" mounted on a police cruiser's grill. The GPS module then sticks to the rear of the fleeing car, allowing dispatch to track the vehicle while the pursuing officer breaks off.
Make no mistake: breaking off is most often a good thing. According to a 2010 FBI report on pursuit policies, high-speed chases are often dangerous and unnecessary. Breaking off the pursuit, meanwhile, has very few negative consequences for crime-fighting. Various studies (all of them cited by the FBI in the aforementioned report) have shown that once suspects realize they're no longer being chased, they tend to slow down to normal driving speeds. The FBI's report even rebuts the most frequently excused argument for chasing suspects: "If the police refrain from chasing all offenders or terminate their pursuits, no significant increase in the number of suspects who flee would occur."
So back to StarChase, this "revolutionary" GPS launching system: It has some flaws. The cannon costs $5,000 and the non-reusable GPS "bullets" cost $500 each. During a recent media demonstration, four sticky bullets were fired at a car, but only one of them stayed stuck. That failure rate could lead to some pretty ugly budget math, though the cost of the system might still be cheaper than the cost of a collision caused by a high-speed chase.
For instance, the police department in St. Petersburg, Florida, which will now experiment with StarChase, initiated 26 high-speed chases last year. Seventeen of those chases—65 percent—ended in collisions. Twenty-six chases, with four $500 GPS trackers fired per chase, comes out to $52,000 in ammo. That's surely less expensive than the damage incurred through 17 collisions (especially last year's incident in which a car thief, who had his two-year-old with him, drove into a city bus; the two vehicles then veered off the road and into an apartment building), but the cost of outfitting an entire fleet with $5,000 cannons would be a lot heftier. That's why departments are starting with just a few. Troopers in Iowa have reportedly already used it to preclude a lengthy and likely dangerous chase.
But cost isn't the only concern. Last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled that police need a warrant to attach a GPS tracking device to a person's vehicle. U.S. v. Katzin concerned federal agents who'd attached a GPS device to a suspected pharmacy robber's car; the court ruled that by doing so, the Feds had created "a police presence for the purpose of discovering evidence that may come into existence and/or be placed within the vehicle at some point in the future." That uninterrupted presence constitutes an unreasonable search if there's not a warrant authorizing it. A year before the Katzin ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Jones that using GPS to track a car was indeed a search, but didn't say if a warrant was needed.
This is where StarChase may face an even bigger problem than the stickiness of its darts. The company's response to U.S. v. Jones explicitly points to the absence of a warrant requirement as a reason why law enforcement departments shouldn't fear legal challenges to their use of the GPS dart. "By failing to state that a warrant is required," reads StarChase's statement, "the Court left open the possibility that use of a GPS tracking device on an automobile may still be a reasonable search in some circumstances, such as immediately after the commission of a crime, even absent a valid warrant."
There's also this: "The StarChase Pursuit Management System is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment because the officers have probable cause to believe the vehicle they are tracking is being used in the commission or active escape from a crime." Basically, the company's lawyers believe StarChase is legal one way or another.
If StarChase does turn out to be legal, the hope for privacy advocates will have to be that police departments will be required to write clear and publicly available policies governing their use, especially in light of the early Big Data abuse that surfaced in Oakland this week.
Top image: The Ford Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson (hidden in rear seat) is chased by dozens of police cars during an hour long pursuit through Los Angeles area freeways on June 17, 1994. (AP)