Virginia police routinely use secret GPS pings to track people’s cell phones
Scott Durvin says he faced aggressive questioning from a Chesterfield County Police detective after his friend died of a drug overdose at the end of 2019. What he didn’t know at the time was that police had also begun secretly tracking his whereabouts by ordering Verizon Wireless to regularly ping his phone’s GPS and report his location back to detectives in real-time.
“That’s kind of shocking, really,” Durvin said, reached by phone at the same number police were using to follow him virtually a little more than two years ago. “The detective would call me all the time and try to get me to give them information and he would threaten to lock me up. But I didn’t have anything to do with it and he finally left me alone.”
Police never described Durvin as a suspect in the search warrant application they submitted seeking permission to track him and court records show he has not been charged with any crimes in Virginia since police took out the warrant.
Instead, officers wrote that they had found voicemails from Durvin on the overdose victim’s phone and thought tracking his location might help them figure out who supplied the deadly dose of heroin, noting that Durvin had been with the man during what appeared to be a prior overdose in Richmond.
The case offers a glimpse into a surveillance technique that’s become commonplace for police but is mostly unknown among the general public: cell phone location tracking.
Public records requests submitted to a sampling of 18 police departments around the state found officers used the technique to conduct more than 7,000 days worth of surveillance in 2020. Court records show the tracking efforts spanned cases ranging from high-profile murders to minor larcenies.
A state law passed with little notice in 2015 authorizes the surveillance as long as police first obtain a search warrant from a magistrate or judge, but in practice, the bar for judicial approval isn’t particularly high. Officers simply have to attest in an affidavit that they have probable cause that the tracking data is “relevant to a crime that is being committed or has been committed.”
The warrants are limited by law to 30 days but can be — and often are — renewed monthly by a judge.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.
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