Police ask Minnesota lawmakers to use tracking devices on stolen cars

Public safety and privacy concerns are clashing at the state Capitol as police groups seek a permission slip from lawmakers to expand their use of warrantless tracking devices on stolen cars amid a rash of carjackings.

Minnesota law enforcement already use the devices, which they shoot or attach onto a car, when the vehicle's owner gives permission. But state law bans police from using the technology when they can't find the owner, so law enforcement groups are asking to use tracking devices anytime a vehicle is reported stolen by its owner.

"I would ask for your support because this is one of the best ways we can reduce high speed chases," Ramsey County Undersheriff Mike Martin told the Senate Judiciary committee during a Wednesday hearing.

Carjackings have soared in the Twin Cities in recent years. In 2021, there were nearly 650 reported in Minneapolis, 101 in St. Paul, and dozens of others in the suburbs. They often lead to chases that put police, other drivers, and pedestrians in danger, Martin said.

The legislation has advanced through two Minnesota House committees and is eligible for a House floor vote, while the Senate Judiciary committee delayed voting on it Wednesday.

The measure has splintered both parties in the divided Legislature. It has Republican and Democratic support, but senators in both parties have raised privacy concerns about the watchful eye of government.

"I think we’re one more step closer to harming privacy rights in a way where I think if we breech that barrier, we’re never going back," said state Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton.

To address concerns, supported have added a 24-hour cutoff, after which law enforcement would need to either remove the tracking device or seek a warrant to continue using it. The House bill already included the 24-hour rule.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and Ramsey County Sheriff's Office endorsed the change during Wednesday's hearing. But it wasn't enough to dislodge the bill from committee.

Nothing would stop law enforcement from attaching a tracking device to a vehicle parked on the street or a driveway, even though the stated purpose is to head off a police chase in progress, critics said.

"I think there are a number of questions I’m not sure I’m comfortable with," said state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park.

State Sen. Mark Johnson, the bill's lead author in the Senate, said he too was skeptical of the proposal at first. 

"This is a very simple bill. it’s very limited in scope," said Johnson, R-East Grand Forks.

He and other lawmakers said the privacy concerns were overblown.

"We’re looking to protect victims," said state Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove. "The way this bill is written does that because they have to proactively report it’s stolen. They have to be in cooperation with law enforcement to agree that the property that they own can be tracked – because they want it back."