Police Use iOS App to Track Suspect After ‘Accidentally’ Dropping a Phone in His Truck

Police Use iOS App to Track Suspect After ‘Accidentally’ Dropping a Phone in His Truck
Photo: Lam Yik Fei, Getty Images

Sheriff’s deputies in Colorado tracked down and arrested a man using Apple’s Find My iOS app, claiming that an officer had “lost” his work phone in the bed of the man’s truck after the suspect fled the scene. The unique case, first reported by Denver NBC affiliate 9News, could serve as a constitutional test of warrantless location tracking.

The Weld County Sheriff’s Office said in a press release that Deputy Travis Peck pulled over Steven Sandoval at 1:15 a.m. local time, pursuant to a suspicious person report. Peck identified Sandoval, 51, who was wanted for failure to appear in court and flight to avoid prosecution, by pulling up mugshots on a “county-issued” phone. While trying to persuade Sandoval to get out of the car, according to the release, Peck left the phone on the rail of the truck bed in order to retrieve his handcuffs. The phone allegedly fell into the truck as Sandoval sped off.

That’s plausible, but then the release proceeds to go into apologetics about his motives for finding the phone.

“A short time later,” it reads, “the deputy realised his mobile phone was missing. Considering it is county property, the deputy felt it was important to locate the phone as quickly as possible. He used his personal mobile phone to call another deputy to have him find it using the ‘Find My iPhone’ app.”

Characterising the placement of the phone on Sandoval’s truck as an accident may be central to the constitutionality of the case. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Jones that police must have a warrant in order to attach a GPS tracking device to a vehicle; as a result, the Court reversed a conviction made using that tactic. “It was just kind of a weird happenstance that it fell into the truck bed and not on the ground,” Joseph Moylan, public information officer for Weld County Sheriff’s Office, told Gizmodo in a phone call. “He didn’t throw it in there.”

In any case, the deputies watched the device travel toward Boulder for an hour. When it stopped, the Weld County Sheriff’s Office sent the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office to apprehend it, along with Sandoval, who was later charged with resisting arrest along with a number of felony and misdemeanour charges.

Gizmodo asked the PIO whether the deputies were aware that the phone was in Sandoval’s truck at any point while observing it move along the highway. He didn’t answer the question but responded via email: “The priority was recovering the mobile phone, a piece of lost county property. The question of whether this was a lawful arrest is up to the courts to decide and we’re more than confident the actions of our deputies were justified.”

“[I]f you take the baffling serendipity of the circumstances away, the basic facts are fundamentally similar to those in United States v. Jones,” Elizabeth Daniel Vasquez, director of the Science & Surveillance Project at Brooklyn Defender Services, wrote via email.

In the case, the Supreme Corut ruled that FBI officers’ warrantless placement of a GPS tracker on a person’s car violated Fourth Amendment protections against an illegal search. But Daniel Vasquez added that a court would likely need to reassess intention in the case against Sandoval. “Does the claim of ‘accident’ sidestep the Jones Court’s reasoning?” she wrote. “These will be questions for Mr. Sandoval’s lawyers to work through, investigate, and challenge.”