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What police officers should know about smartphone recovery technology

If a citizen tells you that the man in the brown jacket, sitting on a bench in the park, has their smartphone, is that enough to detain and search him if he doesn’t give consent?

If this hasn’t yet happened at your agency, it soon will. A citizen reports that their smartphone has been stolen, and that they know where it is. They want an officer to go get it — or go with them when they go get it — and to arrest the thief. As the COPS theme goes, “Whatcha gonna do?”

Smartphone theft is rampant. A 2012 report from the FCC indicated 40 percent of the robberies in New York City involved smartphones, and Consumer Reports estimated 1.6 million smartphones were stolen in 2012. An estimated 140 million people in the United States own smartphones, with that number predicted to climb to more than 200 million by 2017. By comparison, there are roughly 250 million cars in the United States. 

The phones are valuable enough simply as objects for fencing/resale but people are as concerned for the data on the phones as for the devices themselves. Smartphones regularly carry contact information for thousands of people, photos the user may not have copies of (or doesn’t want other people to see), bank and credit card data, and website passwords. Worse, three of every ten smartphone users don’t lock their phones with a passcode, so anyone who finds it has access to whatever is stored there. 

Good for Users, Complicated for Cops
Location tracking technology built into most of these phones allows their users to locate the phone’s position remotely. Sometimes this can be done even if the phone is not turned on. Only removing the battery will make the phone go completely silent, and some phones, notably the iPhone, don’t have removable batteries. 

In the case of the iPhone, a free “Find My Phone” app allows the user to display the phone’s location on a map, where the phone has been recently, to lock or erase the phone remotely, and to display a message to whoever might have it or finds it. The app will also cause the phone to play a sound file (roughly, “Here I am!”). Any of these actions run from another iOS device or a web browser. An app with the same name from the Google Play store permits almost as many options on an Android device. 

This technology is terrific for smartphone owners, but creates a new set of problems for cops. If a citizen tells you that the man in the brown jacket, sitting on a bench in the park, has their smartphone, is that enough to detain and search him if he doesn’t give consent? What if the phone is in his car, or in his house? 

If you can get the phone to sound off in the pocket of a suspect standing in front of you, that’s probably good enough to go looking for where the sound is coming from without a warrant or further probable cause. If the phone is in a car, you still might be safe going after it. If it’s in a house where you don’t have free access, you have a different situation entirely. 

The home is the most protected premise under the Fourth Amendment. There are all sorts of exceptions to the search warrant requirement, but the rule of “if you have time to get a search warrant, get one” still applies. There could conceivably be an exigent circumstances exception, but it’s tough to flush a Droid down the toilet. 

Bugs in the System
The locating technology is fairly reliable most of the time, but there are some bugs in the system. A North Las Vegas, NV man named Wayne Dobson has been plagued with people coming to his home, insisting he has their smartphones. 

Certain location technology uses triangulation between cell towers instead of GPS signals. Phones on the Sprint network in the Las Vegas area often broadcast their location as Dobson’s home. Since 2011, people have been banging on Dobson’s front door, demanding he give their phone back. He’s gone so far as to post a sign next to the entrance of his home, advising people of the problem. 

If your agency doesn’t have a procedure for tracking and recovering stolen smartphones, get to work on one. Involve your local prosecutors, so that whatever methods you decide on will pass muster in court. And, if you have a smartphone of your own, put a passcode on it, and don’t use that code for anything else. Otherwise, you’re putting all of your personal information out there for someone to pick up and walk away with. 

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