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Police 'GPS cannons' can shoot trackers at fleeing cars, but are they legal?

Police 'GPS cannons' can shoot trackers at fleeing cars, but are they legal?


'Life-threatening decisions shouldn’t have to be made during a high-speed pursuit'

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GPS bomb
GPS bomb

On October 4th in Washington DC, a woman tried to ram a White House security barrier with her car and then fled, initiating a high-speed pursuit that ended with police opening fire and killing the suspect near the US Capitol. The hill went on lockdown and, as one can expect from such circumstances, "mass panic" ensued.

Via ABC Action News in Tampa, Autoblog reported this morning about police technology that might’ve diminished the chaos in DC earlier this month — and could potentially cut down on similar chaotic incidences that revolve around high-speed police chases.

The technology is called StarChase. The company works with police departments to install GPS cannons into police cruiser grilles. When officers begin pursuits that they believe might go haywire, they push a button that shoots a GPS beacon toward the fleeing vehicle. At that point, according to StarChase’s logic, the officer can hang back. The GPS tracker transmits its location via a secure web connection. The officer and dispatchers can then simply watch on a computer screen where the vehicle is headed instead of commencing a potentially deadly chase. "Life-threatening decisions shouldn’t have to be made during a high-speed pursuit," insists a promotional video from StarChase:

StarChase is a little expensive at this point; each GPS projectile costs $250. Still, it’s an interesting idea. And, as the promotional video suggests, GPS tracking might be the most logical option police have. Chases are dangerous and, for this reason, many police departments forbid their officers from entering into high-speed pursuits. Even if police departments don’t forbid chases, people often goad police into high-speed pursuits for frivolous reasons. StarChase seemingly offers an alternative to situations where lives and property are put in danger over relatively minor offenses like suspended licenses and small-quantity drug possession.

One glaring problem is that US citizens do have a reasonable expectation of privacy. And, as US v. Jones showed last year, a warrant is required before a GPS tracking device can be placed on a vehicle.

Mandy McCall, a media representative from StarChase, says that’s a moot point.

"I’m appreciative of the warrant question," she says. "But we have not been in a situation where a warrant has been required before StarChase can be deployed." The reason for this, she says, is probable cause. She cited a statement from the company’s founder:

Even though Jones makes clear that attaching the StarChase GPS device and collecting information from it constitutes a "search," the use of 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. The StarChase Pursuit Management System is deployed in exigent circumstances, primarily, the high speed pursuit, stolen vehicle or other in progress felony. Such use under Jones remains constitutional.

"What’s important is that this can reduce liability for law enforcement," McCall says. And they’re doing their best to provide numbers in that regard. StarChase is in a cooperative agreement with the National Institute of Justice to determine statistics regarding whether StarChase can reduce liabilities, injuries, and death. And during the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference last week, a panelist shared preliminary findings about StarChase’s effectiveness. When StarChase was tested, the speaker said:

In each case, no chase was conducted, there were no crashes, no property damage, and no injuries. In each case, the cars were recovered and a total of nine arrests were made. While the specific distance it took for the vehicles to slow down to 10 miles over the speed limit (which is estimated to approximate normal driving conditions), is unknown, the time is recorded. In the eight cases, the time varied from 50 seconds to 15 minutes, which is consistent with estimates from officers and suspects.

More concrete data is forthcoming, McCall says.

In the meantime, StarChase is working with a handful of agencies including the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Iowa State Patrol, and the Austin Police Department to test its GPS cannon. No calls from the US Capitol Police yet, though.

"We want to make a difference," Mandy says. "We are a small company trying to do something good."