Aspen police, city discuss tech that gleans phone, tablet, license data

Kim Ferber poses for a photo with the staff after being sworn in as the new Aspen Police Chief on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, at the Aspen Police Station. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Aspen City Council’s work session Monday pivoted between the urgent need for law enforcement to track a suspect and the 4th Amendment right to privacy.

Aspen Police Chief Kim Ferber reviewed stats that showed that crime had dipped slightly and announced a new hire would enter the police academy in January. She described how newly implemented technology, SmartForce, helped direct and track bike and foot patrols this summer.

And she described the newly created Digital Forensics Expert job. The expert could use technology to gather data from cellphones, license plate readers, and tablets that might possibly otherwise require a warrant for access.

Ferber was asked whether laws were keeping pace with this technology and protecting the 4th Amendment’s Constitutional defense against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Ferber said that from her observation, courts were scrutinizing requests for warrants even more closely. But her observation did not address the question of whether obtaining information from an electronic device without a warrant was likely to be challenged in court.

One council member noted examples of when the technology had been used successfully to catch a suspects, but welcomed further discussion of the underlying legal principles.

License plate readers were famously used to track Bryan Kohberger, who is accused of killing four Idaho university students, as he drove across country. This summer, license plate readers helped Aspen police track a local man accused of beating his wife and kidnapping one of their children as he drove into New Mexico.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Carpenter v. United States (2018) the justices ruled 5 to 4 that the 4th Amendment applies to cellphones. Cellphone data collected by most providers documents a “detailed chronicle of a person’s physical presence compiled every day, every moment over years” and accessing it would require a warrant, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. wrote in his opinion.

Ferber also said that Detective Lauren Turner had standardized evidence processing which should “increase ongoing accuracy” in a high liability area.