High-Tech Law Enforcement Raises Civil Rights Issues

Article excerpt

The technology that has revolutionized the way America works and plays is also changing the way police catch criminals - and those changes have some civil libertarians concerned.

From Vienna, where unblinking electronic cameras monitor red lights, to Montgomery County, where police use thermal imaging devices to "look" inside houses, high-tech law enforcement increasingly means authorities can see and hear just about anything, anywhere.

Just ask Gregory Hinton.

The twice-convicted bank robber is facing another stint behind bars after FBI agents used satellite tracking technology to follow Hinton in the moments after a Springfield, Va., bank robbery.

Agents suspected Hinton and had persuaded a judge to allow them to put a tracking device on his van. The hunch paid off when the FBI used satellite technology - known as a global positioning system, or GPS - to pinpoint Hinton's van after the robbery. He was pulled over and officers found about $42,000 worth of cash from the bank.

Georgetown law professor Peter Rubin said the government's ability to track down a person via satellite is chilling, if not Orwellian.

"The government has information it wouldn't have otherwise with the technology," Mr. Rubin said. "It is a further invasion of privacy."

Tools such as night vision and the Internet are making it easier for the police to catch crooks, he acknowledged. Answering the question, "Are they using it just on the bad guys?" is much more difficult, he said.

Bradford Brown, chairman of George Mason University's school of law technology and law center, said what we are seeing now is the law having to catch up to the technology.

"A lot of the old laws aren't particularly applicable to what we have today," Mr. Brown said. "And in a lot of cases, judges are wrestling with some of the issues themselves."

Craig B. English, who represented Hinton in the Springfield bank robbery case, said the technology puts powerful tools in the hands of police. But that's not necessarily a bad thing for defendants, said the Alexandria lawyer. The precise nature of the evidence gathered, according to Mr. English, could also help make police officers more accountable.

"Forensic evidence . . . gives a neutral opinion," Mr. English said. "So when policemen claim that they were somewhere, we can verify that they were there. It's not skewed or slanted like the D.C. police."

Montgomery County police spokesman Derek Baliles disagrees with those critics who contend high-tech police work tramples on constitutional rights. …