OGDEN -- The Weber County Sheriff's Office typically doesn't obtain probable cause warrants to track cellphones in criminal investigations, according to a new national study by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU submitted public records requests to 383 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. to determine how police gain access to cellphone information.
More than 200 agencies responded to the request.
The ACLU picked agencies to survey based on recommendations from its state chapters, said Allie Bohm, a Ney York-based advocacy and policy strategist for the ACLU, Tuesday.
In Utah, the ACLU also sent requests to the Salt Lake City Police Department, Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office, Unified Police of Greater Salt Lake, Washington County Sheriff's Office, the West Valley City Police Department and Utah County Sheriff's Office.
The Utah County Sheriff's Office was the only agency that did not respond to the request, Bohm said.
The law enforcement agencies in Utah were selected for the study specifically because of their size, she said.
The ACLU study determined that a few law enforcement agencies obtain probable cause warrants for cellphone information, but most don't.
"Given the intimate nature of location information, the government should have to obtain a warrant based upon probable cause to track cellphones," the ACLU says in the report. "That is what is necessary to protect Americans' privacy, and it is also what is required under the Constitution. But is that what the police do? The answer is it depends. Law enforcement agencies' tracking policies are in a state of chaos, with different towns following different rules -- or in some cases, having no rules at all."
The Weber County Sheriff's Office has no clear-cut policy for obtaining cell phone location information because the process is used rarely, Lt. Mark Lowther wrote in letter to the ACLU obtained by the Standard-Examiner.
"We are, of course, guided by general principles of Utah law and the federal and state constitutions," Lowther said in the letter. "But we have no specific office policies relating to this process. Instead a given investigator, if the situation arises, deals with this as they would any other investigative tool."
The most frequent use of cellphone records is by Weber County Search and Rescue to locate lost individuals, Lowther told the ACLU.
"These situations do not result in criminal prosecution and therefore we have never even considered obtaining warrants prior to using the information," he said.
The WCSO probably uses cellphone records in criminal investigations no more than twice a year, Lowther said.
Typically, the sheriff's office contacts cellphone providers and makes a request to receive location information.
"Each provider has a different system for authorizing police use of location information, and we comply with whatever that cellphone provider requests," Lowther said in the letter to the ACLU. "Sometimes the cellphone company requires that the office fill out a request form and provide it to them. Some companies ask that when we have time to do so, we obtain court approval for the tracking request. We have no polices or forms generated by our office for this purpose. We use and comply with requirements of each individual cellphone company."
When necessary, the sheriff's office also obtains warrants to get information or afterward to satisfy the requirements of the cellphone company, Lowther said in the letter.
The ACLU takes issue with the sheriff's office lack of policies that allows it to obtain cellphone information without a warrant, Bohm said.
It shouldn't be left up to individual cellphone companies to determine when a warrant is needed, she added.
Lowther said Tuesday it would be difficult for the sheriff's office to develop a policy for obtaining cellphone information because rules vary by cellphone carrier.
The ACLU supports passage of the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act being sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Bohm said.
The bill requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before accessing location information and also regulates the use of this information by business.
The complete cell phone tracking report can be found at www.aclu.org.