Vagueness in Chapel Hill Police Department policies for tracking cellphone usage is causing a stir among some who worry about the potential for privacy invasion.
In the department’s response to an American Civil Liberties Union public records request released last weekend, Chapel Hill police officials stated they had no documents regarding policies they use to obtain cellphone records.
ACLU requests for policies for tracking cellphone location and usage were sent to hundreds of police departments across the nation.
They were released to draw attention to inconsistencies in policy, as well as a lack of regulation for the practice, especially for police departments that track cellphones without warrants.
“The information we are talking about is sensitive, personal information,” said Mike Meno, spokesman for ACLU of North Carolina. “American citizens have the constitutional right to privacy, so we need to make sure that police go through the proper channels for this information.”
Of the 200 departments that responded to the request, about 40 were located in North Carolina, including Chapel Hill.
“A lot of police departments didn’t even respond,” Meno said. “Of those that did, about half gave us information that wasn’t clear.”
In its response to the records request, Chapel Hill police included a search warrant issued to BellSouth Mobility Records for telephone numbers involved in a death investigation.
“With Chapel Hill, some of it is unclear, but they did include evidence of at least one time when they had sought a court order for cellphone records,” Meno said.
But Meno said Chapel Hill’s lack of procedures worried him.
“This can be troubling sometimes if there isn’t written policy about cellphone tracking.”
Chapel Hill Sgt. Joshua Mecimore said though police do not have a written protocol, they do have standard procedures surrounding cellphone tracking.
Before officers track a cellphone or obtain cellphone records, he said, they have to issue a warrant or have a subpoena from a judge.
“Sometimes cell phone records are important to proving or disproving a person’s involvement in the crimes we are investigating,” he said.
Mecimore also described a situation in which tracking someone’s cellphone allowed police to save a young woman’s life.
“A girl texted her friend and told her friend that she was going to hurt herself,” he said. “We tracked her cellphone, found her and got her the help she needed.”
Victor Medley, a senior majoring in public policy, said he still worries that Chapel Hill’s policy is too aggressive.
“That’s a pretty invasive policy,” he said.
Contact the City Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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