I Spy

An outraged deputy district attorney recently complained to The Orange County Register about its January series of articles that revealed a nationwide police practice of secretly attaching high-tech tracking devices to suspects' cars--in many cases without a court's knowledge or consent.

"Congratulations to the Register for once again exposing and probably compromising a useful tool employed by police agencies in their war against drug dealers and other criminal elements," wrote prosecutor Carl W. Armbrust of Westminster in a letter to the editor in the Reg's Jan. 9 edition. Assuming a secrets-make-democracy-safe posture, Armbrust argued that the public would not benefit from learning of the controversial tactic.

It's understandable that law-enforcement officials crave ever-greater investigatory powers, but, contrary to Armbrust's opinion, the Register--specifically courthouse reporter Stuart Pfeifer--deserves kudos for unearthing the story. Although government authorities say they don't need permission to use the devices, Americans rightly get pissed off when you spy on them.

Pfeifer said he first stumbled upon the then-unknown police tactic five years ago while routinely reviewing search warrants as a reporter for the Daily Breeze in Los Angeles. In a story he wrote about Teletrac, the Kansas City, Missouri-based company that markets the technology, Pfeifer quoted law-enforcement authorities as insisting they would only use the device with a court's permission. When he decided to revisit the issue late last year, Pfeifer learned authorities had reneged on their pledge--and were reluctant to talk about it.

Not surprisingly, police and prosecutors enjoy asking questions, not answering them. Government officials in Orange County--as well as in Florida and Texas--tried to stonewall Pfeifer's monthlong investigation. Some officials cursed him. Others pleaded with him not to publicize the tactic. A narcotics officer asked him, "[Why] tell criminals what we are doing?"

"It was an emotional issue for them," said Pfeifer, who has been contacted by NBC's Today show about his story. "I can't tell you how many times [police and prosecutors] hung up on me. I think they were stunned that I knew what they were doing and distraught because they feared they would lose a toy."

The technology allows police to attach a videocassette-size transmitter under a car, the precise movements of which can then be monitored on a computer screen at police headquarters. Suspects in cars can no longer be sure that they are not being followed.

Teletrac, which has a Garden Grove office, said it has sold more than 50 devices to police agencies in Southern California. Private citizens who want to know the whereabouts of their vehicles at all times can have a different model of the monitoring device permanently attached.

In the wake of Pfeifer's report, authorities have admitted that they have been using Teletrac for several years. A former member of the Los Angeles district attorney's office told Pfeifer that in California alone, as many as 500 recent defendants may have been sent to jail without knowing they had been tracked with the device. Nobody could say how many others police tracked without ever charging them.

Defense attorneys and public defenders reacted angrily to the revelations. They said police should have to gain formal court permission to use the device--much as they would to obtain a search warrant--and that all evidence gained through the monitoring should be shared with a charged suspect's lawyer. It is likely, defense attorneys say, that such monitoring could also uncover information that points to a defendant's innocence.

Under state and federal law, prosecutors must share evidence with the defense. In response to the Register story, public defenders and defense attorneys across the nation are now routinely asking police if they used the tracking device on their clients.

The Los Angeles Times has yet to inform its readers of the issue.

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