iOS App Helps Police Track a Suspect Who ‘accidentally’ Dropped a Phone In His Truck

Officers located the phone in a suspect’s car, which led to an arrest, according to the sheriff’s office.

Photo: Lam Yik Fei (Getty Images)

After the suspect fled the scene, Colorado Sheriff’s deputies used the Find My iOS app to track down and arrest a man who had “lost” his work phone in the bed of his truck. As a result of the unique nature of this case, warrantless location tracking could be tested in court.

Steven Sandoval was pulled over at 1:15 a.m. by deputy Travis Peck, according to a press release from the Weld County Sheriff’s Office. The report was made on suspicion of a suspicious person at local time. By looking at Sandoval’s mugshots on a county-issued phone, Peck determined Sandoval was wanted for failure to appear in court and flight of prosecution. As Peck picked up Sandoval’s handcuffs from the truck bed while trying to persuade him to get out of the car, the release states, he left the phone on the bed rail. As Sandoval sped away, the phone fell into the truck.

The first news report of the story is reported by Denver’s NBC affiliate 9news. However, the official release goes into apologetics about the officer’s motives for finding his phone.

“Shortly afterwards,” it says, “the deputy realized his cellphone was missing.”. Considering it is county property, the deputy felt it was important to locate the phone as quickly as possible. He used his personal cellphone to call another deputy to have him find it using the ‘Find My iPhone’ app.”

In order to prove the case’s constitutionality, the placement of the phone on Sandoval’s truck needs to be considered an accident. The Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Jones in 2012 that a warrant was required for police to attach GPS tracking devices to vehicles is an infringement upon the Fourth Amendment; for that reason, the Court reversed a conviction issued using that tactic. “It was just kind of a weird happenstance that it fell into the truck bed and not on the ground,” Weld County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Joseph Moylan told Gizmodo in a phone interview. “He didn’t throw it in there.”

Regardless, the deputies watched the device travel towards Boulder for about an hour. Sandoval was subsequently charged with resisting arrest along with felony and misdemeanor charges via the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office after the vehicle stopped in Weld County.

Gizmodo requested an explanation from the PIO about whether the deputy knew the phone was in the truck at any time while watching it travel on the highway. The county employee did not answer the question but responded by email: “Recovering the cellphone, a lost county item, was the top priority.”. “It’s up to the courts to determine whether this was a lawful arrest, but we believe our deputy was justified in his actions.”

UC Berkeley law professor Orin Kerr wrote that if the phone was indeed left accidentally, the coincidence may shield the deputies from Fourth Amendment challenges. “If the facts are as stated, I doubt there was a constitutional violation,” Kerr wrote. “Assuming that the phone was accidentally dropped in the car, the incident was not a Fourth Amendment search because no intent to obtain information was involved, which is required by Jones.”

In the case, the Supreme Court ruled that FBI agents placed a GPS tracker on a person’s car without a warrant, violating Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches.

As for using the Find My app to track down the car, Kerr pointed out that this may constitute a search, yet the answer to this is likely no, since the car was on a public road. According to him, courts have granted short-term tracking of vehicles on public roads without violating the Fourth Amendment.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s deputy executive director Kurt Opsahl, on the other hand, believes that accidentally using the Find My iPhone app should constitute a point-blank search. “The excuse of recovering missing county property is pretty weak, and the officer knew it would also lead to tracking the suspect,” Opsahl wrote via email. “Installing AirTags, phones, or other consumer tracking devices accidentaly would constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment and would invalidate the warrant requirement.”

A Brooklyn Defender Services’ director of the Science & Surveillance Project, Elizabeth Daniel Vasquez, also strongly thinks the deputy’s excuse should be investigated legally. In an email she wrote “[I]f you take the baffling serendipity of the circumstances away, the basic facts are fundamentally similar to those in United States v. Jones,”. Despite this, she noted that a court would likely need to reevaluate Sandoval’s intent.

“Does the claim of ‘accident’ sidestep the Jones Court’s reasoning?” she wrote. “These will be questions for Mr. Sandoval’s lawyers to work through, investigate, and challenge.”

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