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Minnesota Law Enforcement Uses Loophole to Avoid Stringent Warrant Requirements for Location Tracking

ST. PAUL, Minn. (Dec. 21, 2016) – A report released by the Minnesota court system reveals police in the state take advantage of a loophole created by overlapping laws to circumvent strict restrictions on obtaining location tracking information from electronic devices.

According to the report, judges granted 1,820 court orders authorizing location tracking over a two-yea period. Law enforcement agencies used three methods to track suspects.

  1. Through their cell phones – 1,202 times.
  2. Via a GPS tracking device attached to a vehicle – 436 times.
  3. Using social media – 182 times.

The court never denied a request.

The majority of the court orders remain sealed. Privacy advocates in the state want to determine if Minnesota law enforcement agencies regularly deploy stingrays. These devices essentially spoof cell phone towers, tricking any device within range into connecting to the stingray instead of the tower, allowing law enforcement to sweep up communications content, as well as locate and track the person in possession of a specific phone or other electronic device.

In 2014, a law went into effect in Minnesota requiring police to obtain a court order based on probable cause before they could track an electronic device. Under the law, those orders generally become public after 90 days. But according to KMSP-TV, the report shows police regularly circumvent that newer, more stringent law by applying for court orders under an older provision that only requires them to establish reasonable suspicion and that keeps the order permanently sealed.

“The disconnect is we have these two statutes that overlap in subject matter, but doesn’t say which is controlling,” Public Defender Shawn Webb said. “Until there’s clarity from legislature or courts there’s going to be this overlap, and law enforcement gets to choose which statute they’ll use.”

The Minnesota legislature needs to take steps during the 2017 session to clarify the law and ensure law enforcement can only obtain location tracking orders through the more stringent process established in the 2014 statute.

The state should also directly address the use of stingrays in the state by limiting their use specifically and establishing strict warrant requirements. A law passed in Illinois earlier this year serves as an excellent model.