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Newer technology can track a cell phone user’s location within 60 feet.

by PACWEST    Mar 21, 2010, 8:49 PM

Cell phone evidence helps crack 1,000s of cases

Newer technology can track a cell phone user’s location within 60 feet.

Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — To crack the case of a speeding Porsche that left two men dead in its wake, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., police turned to a crime-fighting ally: the U.S. Secret Service.

The same government agency that protects the president and zealously pursues counterfeiters played a role in the investigation by analyzing cell phone records for the car’s owner and one of his friends, police records show.

The analysis helped lead to vehicular homicide charges against the Porsche’s owner, Ryan LeVin, who is now in the Broward County Jail without bond.

What got the Secret Service involved? Neither the federal agency nor Fort Lauderdale police would say. The local head of the Secret Service declined to discuss how often his agency is asked to analyze such cell phone records.

“That’s a sensitive investigative technique that we use,” said Michael Fithen, special agent in charge of the Miami office. “The Secret Service tries to cooperate and assist all law enforcement agencies when that request is made of us, that’s for a variety of different investigative abilities.”

The investigation of the Feb. 13, 2009, hit-and-run demonstrated yet again how cell phone owners, without realizing it, leave behind an electronic trail of their whereabouts that can later be re-created by law enforcement.

With newer phones that access local wireless Internet, or WiFi, networks, the ability to pinpoint where users have been is heightened.

Tens of thousands of criminals are behind bars now because at the moment of their offense, they were carrying a cell phone, said professor Ricardo Bascuas of the University of Miami School of Law.

“Nobody commits a crime expecting to be caught,” said Bascuas. “Any crime is a risk: Somebody will see you, someone will turn you in. This is just another one of many risks when you break the law.”

In 1999, the Federal Communications Commission mandated tracking technology in cell phones so emergency dispatchers could trace the locations of emergency calls. Even if a cell phone is not on a call, it is constantly reaching out to make contact with cell-phone towers when it’s on.

When a phone is within range of at least three cell-phone towers, companies can place its whereabouts within about 1,000 feet. That distance can be reduced in some cases to just 60 feet when the phone is a newer model with WiFi.

Plantation, Fla., police made an arrest in the March 2008 strangulation of attorney Melissa Britt Lewis largely based on cell phone records, according to court documents. Tony Villegas, the ex-husband of one of Lewis’ friends, is alleged to have taken her iPhone back with him to his house and then dumped it along the side of a train track.

In the case against three men charged in the 2001 gangland-slaying of SunCruz Casinos owner Konstantinos “Gus” Boulis, prosecutors said cell phone trails place two of the defendants near where the business tycoon was killed.

“Obviously any technology that helps law enforcement to make a legal arrest is going to prove invaluable during prosecution,” said Ron Ishoy, a spokesman for the Broward County State Attorney’s Office.

In the LeVin case, police investigators used court orders to obtain cell phone records from Sprint and AT&T that document calls between LeVin and his friend, Derek Cook, and trace their movements before and after the fatal 2:18 a.m. collision.

With the historical record left by each suspect’s phone connecting to area cell phone towers, investigators say they can show that Cook was not the driver of the Porsche 911 Turbo at the time of the crash, as LeVin first told police.

LeVin, 35, is charged with two counts of vehicular homicide and two counts of leaving the scene of a traffic fatality. The Barrington Hills, Ill., man faces up to 15 years in prison on each of the vehicular homicide charges.

Cook, 38, is charged with being an accessory after the fact, and aggravated fleeing and eluding. He is free on bond.

The FCC has rules that prohibit a third party from getting someone’s phone records without either the user’s permission or a court order.

A Sprint spokesman said the communications company receives thousands of subpoenas from law enforcement for cell phone records, the majority of which are 911. While there is no legal requirement on how the records need to be kept, Sprint typically hangs on to the data for two years, said Matthew Sullivan, the company’s spokesman on litigation, privacy and security issues.

Not everyone agrees on when that technology and those records should be made available for a criminal prosecution. In a closely watched case now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia, Justice Department lawyers are arguing prosecutors need show only “reasonable grounds” to get the records if they believe they are relevant to an investigation.

Civil libertarians insist that a higher “probable cause” standard should be met.

“The real question here is not that cell phone records are used to catch criminals,” said Bascuas. “Rather, how hard should it be for the police to get that information?” ... »
So I guess if you don't want to be tracked down so easily by your cell phone, use the provider with the least amount of cell towers.

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