Florida wants to expand a secret surveillance program that uses GPS cellphone tracking and other new tracking technology to help police solve violent crimes.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Electronic Surveillance Support Teams have operated under the radar since the first one launched in the Orlando area in 2007. The teams have since spread to South Florida and all across the state, records show, and rising police requests for surveillance have led the department to push for $1.7 million to expand the program.
Although little is known about how agents on these teams use the high-tech surveillance equipment to help police, state records show that locating criminal suspects with GPS locators on smartphones is a common practice.
"We prefer people not to know who they are, where they are or how they are operating," said FDLE Assistant Commissioner Jim Madden, who oversees the department's investigations.
Some secrecy is needed to ensure criminals don't outsmart investigators, Madden said. But civil liberties advocates have argued that nationwide police use of cell phone tracking technology raises legal and constitutional questions, especially when investigators act without a judge's order.
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police must get a warrant from a judge before planting a GPS tracker on a car. But the ruling didn't address police use of GPS for cell phone tracking, leaving it in a gray legal area, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The threat to personal privacy presented by this technology is breathtaking," according to a recent ACLU study about the widespread police use of cell phone tracking without a warrant.
Madden said FDLE always seeks judicial approval to trail someone with GPS, but its written policy for using GPS devices instructs agents to show probable cause for criminal activity to the department's legal counsel to see if a court order is necessary.
Local law enforcement agencies made 171 requests for surveillance support from FDLE's South Florida team in fiscal year 2011-2012, the department said. It's the first year the Miami regional office has kept tabs on the numbers.
Some local police agencies who work with the surveillance and tracking teams are hesitant to describe how it works.
Hollywood Police detectives have worked with them for years, and they credit state agents with helping them hunt down murderers who might otherwise elude them, said Police Sgt. Lyle Bien, who works in the homicide unit.
"We don't have the resources or individuals trained to do this," Bien said. "Technology has gotten so good, they can pinpoint the house where a phone is located."
These type of high-tech tools helped Hollywood homicide detectives find a woman wanted for the December murder of a 69-year-old man found dead in a motel. FDLE's local surveillance team led detectives to Mary Meegan, 44, who was living at a homeless shelter in the Florida Keys.
Although state surveillance teams focus on violent crimes, they will take on some emergency cases, such as child abductions.
In February, the local team located a Delray Beach girl, 17, who was reportedly kidnapped. She texted her mother in the morning that she was being held captive in the trunk of a car.
Within a few hours, Delray Beach detectives asked FDLE's surveillance team to help find her, state records show. By 1:30 that afternoon, FDLE agents knew she was likely somewhere in the El Paraiso motel in Hialeah. They soon found her in one of the motel rooms, holed up with a young man. The teen later admitted she lied about the kidnapping to her parents so she could skip school to rendezvous with a man she met online.
Which tracking method FDLE used to find the girl is unclear, and both police and state authorities declined to discuss it.
Records show that the state surveillance teams also provide wiretapping, GPS car tracking and audio and video surveillance support. The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, the Broward Sheriff's Office and Davie Police are among many local agencies who have worked with them, FDLE said.
The number of requests for surveillance help has skyrocketed in recent years, said Madden, of the FDLE. That's why he asked for $1.7 million to expand the program. Aside from buying more equipment, the money would pay for hiring 12 more special agents to relieve the work load, he said.
"I pay out what I consider an enormous amount of overtime," Madden said. "We are running these folks constantly all over the state."
The budget request was denied, but Madden said he will push for it again in next year's budget.
The advances in technology have given investigators a power they didn't have before, Madden said. That's why it's important for people to know that it's only used in criminal investigations, he said, and agents must show probable cause to trail a criminal suspect.
"One thing I hope that people understand is that we're not going out on a fishing expedition," he said. "It's not Big Brother watching everybody. I firmly believe that with this technology, we're saving lives. It may sound melodramatic, but it's the truth."