A troubled former county sheriff’s legal problems in Missouri are drawing national attention to law enforcement surveillance capabilities in absence of a warrant. While first acting as a deputy, then sheriff of Mississippi County, Missouri from 2014 to 2017, Cory Hutcheson was utilizing technology designed to monitor prison inmates’ phone calls to track the locations of multiple people via their cellphone, all without a court order.
In March 2018, he was indicted on 11 federal charges of identity theft. At the time of his indictment, Hutcheson was already facing seven felony counts of forgery, seven misdemeanor counts of tampering with computer data, and a misdemeanor count of notary misconduct. The last charge stems from the allegation that he illegally “pinged” the cellphones of a judge and five Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers.
Hutcheson was elected in 2016 and took office as sheriff in January 2017. Only four months later, he was indicted on 18 various charges, including one for assaulting a 77-year-old hairdresser and another for kidnapping his sister-in-law. The assault charges were dropped, but charges involving robbery at the salon were allowed to move forward. It took until Hutcheson was already under indictment for all of his other felony and misdemeanor charges. More legal woes mounted, though. Hutcheson was then involved in an altercation with a mentally ill inmate that resulted in the prisoner’s death; that led to Hutcheson being suspended as sheriff. Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley reportedly had Hutcheson suspended to prevent him from continuing to interfere with the ongoing investigations. It is important to note that Hutcheson has pled not guilty to all charges. He faces decades in prison if convicted of all of them.
The ramifications of some of Hutcheson’s alleged crimes are beginning to reverberate across the country and a national discussion is occurring around law enforcement’s ability to locate any cell phone in a matter of minutes, all without probable cause or a warrant. Hutcheson’s story should serve as a cautionary tale to law enforcement agencies throughout the country; just because you have easy access to private information does not mean you shouldn’t go through every single due process step within legal guidelines and through proper channels to utilize this data.
The service in question comes via a company called Securus Technologies that provides thousands of jails and prisons across the U.S. with the capability to monitor the phone calls of inmates. Users of Securus also have the option to “ping” a phone in the United States and get real-time location data. This feature allows a user to identify the location of almost any cell phone in the United States within a matter of seconds, with zero oversight or legal requirements. This is all accomplished by utilizing a system usually employed by marketers to get location data from all of the major cellphone carriers.
In a letter to the FCC, Senator Ron Wyden said, “It is incredibly troubling that Securus provides location data to the government at all – let alone that it does so without a verified court order or other legal process. This clear abuse is only possible because wireless carriers sell their customers’ private information to companies claiming to have consumer consent without sufficiently verifying those claims.”
The requirement of a warrant to acquire the cellphone location data of a private citizen varies from state to state. In some states, a warrant is required to conduct any sort of cellphone tracking; in other states, a warrant is only required if a law enforcement agency wants real-time data. In a handful of states, no warrant is required at all. The United States Justice Department has gone on record stating that their policy is to get a warrant for any real-time tracking. The Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on this specific scenario, but they have previously ruled that the installation of a GPS tracker on a suspect’s car required a warrant, a precedence that should surely be taken into consideration. Hopefully the issue is resolved soon.