Citizens’ rights vs. police use of technology

On the afternoon of June 2, the authorities say, a former music teacher named Christian Paetsch walked into a Wells Fargo bank waving a gun and ordered everyone to lie down.

About 15 minutes later, a phalanx of police cars descended upon an intersection a few miles away, blockading dozens of shocked motorists — including Mr. Paetsch, whom the authorities had tracked with a GPS device buried in the $26,000 he was accused of stealing.

But with only the faintest physical description and unsure which vehicle the device was in, the police trained their weapons on all 20 cars at the intersection and ordered people to show their hands. For nearly two hours, the police ordered every driver and passenger to step out of their cars, even handcuffing some of them, before discovering the missing money and two loaded firearms in Mr. Paetsch’s S.U.V.

The case, now winding its way through the federal court system, is being watched by Fourth Amendment lawyers and law enforcement experts. While advanced technology now gives the police the power to shadow a suspect moments after a crime is committed, there are still legal questions over how wide a net the authorities can cast while in pursuit.

At issue is not Mr. Paetsch’s involvement in the robbery. Rather, his lawyer, Matthew Belcher, a federal public defender, has argued that evidence seized from Mr. Paetsch’s vehicle should be thrown out on the grounds that the roadblock was unconstitutional.

The crook’s lawyer offers a lawyerly interpretation of how he’s trying to get his client off. He says the coppers just had a hunch. Wrong. They had a signal from an RFID tag planted in the stolen money.

If old tech was still being used, a dye marker would have exploded and some cop would have seen a car go by with red dye on the windows – or at least a track or two indicating the direction and possible intersection to corral the crook. An RFID tag is a lot clearer over distance, easier to hide from a thief.

It may not seem precise, the local coppers certainly did a crappy job of handling the public – but, then, that’s what they’re instructed to do when the call is for “armed and dangerous” – the FBI didn’t show with their RFID detector for an hour and the Aurora PD didn’t have one.

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