Minnesota House panel backs expanding police power to track stolen cars - Duluth News Tribune

Minnesota House panel backs expanding police power to track stolen cars – Duluth News Tribune

ST. PAUL — Backers of a proposal to expand police power to use GPS tracking on stolen vehicles say the bill would curb dangerous car chases.

But a government transparency advocate on Thursday, Feb. 10, warned a Minnesota House panel it could encroach on citizens’ privacy.

Under current Minnesota law, it is a gross misdemeanor for police to use GPS tracking on vehicles without the express consent of the vehicle’s owner. A

bill authored by Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview

, heard by a House panel Thursday would make an exception when an owner reports a vehicle as stolen.

In the version committee members voted to advance, officers must cease tracking within 24 hours of attaching a device to a vehicle or obtain court approval to continue. An officer would be required to either remove or disable the device after that period, and evidence collected after the vehicle is returned to the owner would be considered inadmissible in court. Moller said the American Civil Liberties Union recommended the time limit.

The current process for GPS tracking stolen vehicles involves law enforcement contacting owners to obtain consent to attach a device, Ramsey County Undersheriff Mike Martin told the House panel. Authorities also work with auto manufacturers who have already installed GPS or services such as OnStar, he said. 

Martin said officers have the ability to attach or throw sticky GPS trackers on fleeing stolen vehicles, but can’t do so currently because of the state law requiring them to obtain owner permission.

“Unfortunately that’s oftentimes a cumbersome process and we can’t do it in a timely fashion because we can’t get a hold of the registered owners,” Martin said. “We believe that the ability to place a GPS device or work with the manufacturers’ devices will help us to prevent dangerous pursuits.”

The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office approached lawmakers about the issue amid a recent surge in carjackings across the Twin Cities metropolitan area. In 2021

Minneapolis reported more than 600 carjackings

— up from 388 the year before. Law enforcement officials say loosening restrictions on vehicle tracking would help prevent dangerous high-speed chases, which can turn deadly for bystanders, police and fleeing suspects.

Moller said the state peace officers, chiefs of police and sheriffs associations support the proposal, as well as the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. The National Insurance Crime Bureau also submitted a letter in support of the bill.

While supporters tout loosening restrictions as a way to keep people safe and recover vehicles, the proposal is not without its critics. Longtime privacy and government transparency advocate Rich Neumeister testified against the bill, saying it undermines the Fourth Amendment safeguards against unreasonable searches.

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Citizen-lobbyist Rich Neumeister tells a Minnesota House committee Tuesday, May 10, 2016, that a bill to regulate police body cameras does not provide adequate accountability for police activities. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

“It is greatly expanding the use of tracking devices other than recovering and returning a stolen vehicle to their owners, but for other criminal investigations without a search warrant,” Neumeister wrote in a statement to the House’s public safety committee. “If one takes the legislation to the maximum, every time a police officer becomes aware of a reported stolen vehicle with a computer check or a hit based on a license plate reader, a tracking device could be placed on a vehicle.”

Neumeister said the

U.S. Supreme Court

and the

Minnesota Court of Appeals

have made it clear that law enforcement officials must obtain a warrant in order to attach a tracking device to a vehicle.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Committee on Thursday voted 18-1 to advance the bill to the Judiciary Committee. Rep. Eric. Lucero, R-St. Michael, was the lone no vote.

The tracking bill is one of many public safety-related proposals in the Legislature this session aimed at addressing a recent surge in violent crime. There was no companion legislation in the Senate as of Feb. 10.