“Car 54, Where are you?”


That’s a good question.  What the defense usually wants to know is: “What was Car 54’s location at a certain time on the night the defendant was arrested?”  Fortunately, there is a way to  find this out.  Most modern police prowlers are equipped with electronics that report their location to a central command center.  (For example, the Houston Emergency Center.)

Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites are utilized to keep dispatchers apprised of the current location of law enforcement and emergency vehicles. This kind of system is also known by the acronym “AVL” or automatic vehicle location. Such a system serves several purposes. It aids the dispatcher in responding to calls because they can see in real time who is close to a particular area or incident. It is an aid to managing events as well as protecting the safety of personnel in the field. In the sense of safety, its not unlike radar for air traffic controllers. If you disappear from the screen, its likely that something is very wrong.This system also serves other purposes unstated in the official description. It allows resourceful lawyers and investigators to reconstruct who was where after the fact. These location records have been used in that manner by both defense lawyers and prosecutors.  It can provide a certain degree of accountability and oversight of the activity of police officers.

This is all fine and well. The fact that such records exist is of no consequence unless you can obtain them. To their great credit, the Houston Emergency Center will timely respond to requests for AVL records whether through a Public Information Act request or a subpoena.

Harris County however is another matter. With respect to the County it seems that we have is another collision of secrecy vs. accountability and transparency.
County authorities have generally stonewalled the efforts of lawyers and investigators to obtain AVL data. We have tried multiple Public Information requests as well as subpoenas to get at them. At this point, I am not certain who the custodian of these records is or where the command and control center that uses them is located. The other unknown is what is the retention period for these records? (Ideally it would be indefinite if there is a pending criminal investigation.)

Keep in mind these are public safety records generated by a system built with public funds that monitors public servants.  Below is a recent and interesting news story by KTRK reporter Ted Oberg on this topic:

“GPS units in law enforcement vehicles: What some lawmen, lawmakers want to keep you from seeing.”

I would like to thank Mark Bennett for bringing this particular story to my attention. Mark has been very actively involved in the effort to obtain AVL records from Harris County.