The argument against cell tower geolocation techniques as solid evidence is described in the Judicature article, in which the coauthors state, “No one who understands the relevant science would ever claim that data from a single cell phone tower is adequate.”
Cherry says while he contests single cell tower geolocation methods to pinpoint a cell device, the FCC’s rule for its Enhanced 911 that requires carriers to provide GPS location information from the device can provide more reliable scientific evidence.
Dytchkowskyj says he prefers device GPS data, if it’s available. “If they’ve got GPS on their phone, it’s much more accurate, so in court it’s much easier” to back up down the road, should a case reach that stage. Dytchkowskyj says for his agency, there are less issues with relying on the older Phase I geolocation methods, since most towers in Erie County are now Phase II. However throughout the country, that is not always the case.
How should investigators proceed given the limits of cell tower ping location? Dytchkowskyj and Lewis say the method still has its merits and is helpful as a tool to sketch an outline, such as using patterns or an idea of a path of travel.
Lewis says “Understanding the source of the required data and an overview of how devices and service providers record location data is important in knowing what is truly available.”
Dytchkowskyj says staying on top of technology like new phone devices and geolocation methodology as it evolves is important for investigators. “Law enforcement has got to educate themselves about technology. You have to understand what information you can glean from cell tower records.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a smoking gun but it adds to the case in the sense that we can say you were in the area. But you need a heck of a lot more evidence [than just cell tower records].”
The convictions of Komisarjevsky and Hayes are not a landmark case for cell phone tower pinpointing evidence. There were many other types of evidence that placed them at the scene and factored into convicting them. But the challenge to the geolocation evidence was an unpublished headline; not important in the overall guilty conviction but rather the start of a conversation outside of that case on whether geolocation methods can lead to smoking gun evidence.
An emphasis on understanding the technology at hand is important in investigations where science is used to convict or exonerate an individual. If the techniques and tech capabilities are misunderstood, the evidence is misrepresented, too; a disservice to justice.
As Cherry puts it, “flawed evidence produces risks all the way around.”
More information about Next Generation 911 can be found at the Transportation Safety Advancement Group, of which Sgt. Dan Dytchkowskyj works with the Law Enforcement Emergency Response Group, can be found at the organization’s website, www.tsag-its.org/tsaglibrary.php. Access “Cell tower junk science” article through the Educated Evidence division of Cherry Biometrics at http://educatedevidence.com/Viewpoint_J-F.pdf.