Komisarjevsky and Steve Hayes are rather benign. Their cell phones stored the back and forth: Komisarjevsky, the younger of the pair, telling Hayes to hold his horses while Komisarjevsky puts his young daughter to bed at home. Other texts show a picture message of a partially drunken margarita with the message “Check this out!” But the plot not mentioned explicitly in the text is a terrible one, for which the two have since been convicted and sentenced to death. Hours after these exchanges in 2007, a deadly home invasion and robbery ended with the suburban home in flames and a women and two girls dead.
These messages were not the smoking gun in this case; multiple other items of evidence placed the men near the Pettit neighborhood and in the same grocery store where Jennifer Pettit and her younger daughter Michaela were also documented shopping that evening. Gas station surveillance cameras and images of the wrecked Pettit family car vs. police car just a few feet from the burning Pettit home were possibly stronger evidence, however, during expert testimony at the trail the use of cell tower pings to locate the personal phones of both Hayes and Komisarjevsky—a technique that’s been in play in court since cell phones began permeating the lives of everyday Americans—were called into question. Despite its prolonged presence in investigations, cell phone pinpointing methodology has been receiving some recent challenges from technology experts asserting it as a less sound method than, say, global-position system methods. With what we know 12 years into the 21st century, what can we count on from cell tower ping evidence?
GPS vs. cell tower pinpointing
Cellular geolocation techniques utilize cell tower records to gather information to pinpoint the location of a particular device. This becomes a part of investigations when law enforcement utilizes cell data to identify where a person of interest was or was not during an incident. “It can certainly add credence to your case,” Sgt. Daniel Dytchkowskyj of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office says. But depending on the type of technology in play, there is a limit to what can be scientifically derived. For instance, he says if the data for a case in which he’s called to testify is taken from a cell tower, if it’s a Phase I tower, “all I can testify to that is that a cell is in the radius of that cell tower.”
Dytchkowskyj works in the division of police services for Erie County, which is located in Western shoulder of New York state. As commander of the Traffic Bureau and Accident Investigation Unit, his experience with cell phone evidence and cell tower geolocation techniques comes largely from identifying cell phone data as it pertains to a traffic incident, such as investigating fatality accidents. In addition to his position at Erie County Sheriff’s Office, Dytchkowskyj is the vice chair for the Transportation Safety Advancement Group (TSAG), which advises the U.S. Department of Transportation on best practices and technology to protect citizen travelers and public safety personnel who serve them.
Dytchkowskyj says in his experience, the evidence strength is limited by the technology of the phones and the towers. Older technology, like Phase I cell towers and older phones, cannot be as solidly relied on to link a phone to a location as can be ascertained from Phase II towers and newer cell phones that include global positioning system technology.
Honing in on location
The Federal Communications Commission identified that using wireless communication devices for emergency calls was problematic. In instances where people dialed 911 but could not adequately direct responders to where they were, public safety answering points were limited in their ability to locate the caller without a landline. The FCC developed a plan to require telecommunications companies to adapt the technology so phones can be more easily located in emergency situations, with the deadline of 2005. These requirements have been a process of recent years, with some companies not making the initial deadline, but with a continued move toward the following FCC terms: