Couple concerned they weren’t notified their stolen car was used to track criminals
COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS, Utah — It didn’t matter that the phone rang at 4:50 a.m.
Dave and Tina Koch were simply happy to receive good news.
On Aug. 30—17 days after their 2011 Nissan Armada was stolen from their driveway—the couple received a call from Cottonwood Heights Police notifying them their SUV had been recovered from a parking lot outside a motel in Murray.
“We were very grateful to get it back,” Tina Koch said. “It was huge.”
What the Koch family didn’t know at the time, however, was that another police department had actually found the car more than 5 hours earlier, but that department apparently had other plans for the Armada before it would have handed it back.
According to an affidavit, Unified Police detectives on the night of Aug. 29 spotted the car and requested and were granted a search warrant, which allowed them to attach a GPS tracker to the SUV and electronically monitor its movements.
Police had information from a confidential informant indicating the vehicle was being driven by an “armed and dangerous” man who was also believed to have another stolen car parked at an unknown location, the document stated.
A detective noted in the document interest in identifying “potential address(s) where the suspect may have other stolen vehicles.”
“We didn’t know anything about it!” Tina Koch exclaimed. “They found the car, had time to get a warrant and that warrant was issued without permission as well, or contacting us in any way.”
The couple wasn’t happy about that.
“We are all for helping find the perpetrators,” Dave Koch said. “We would love that to happen, but we would also like the option to say, ‘yes or no.’”
Unified Police Sgt. Melody Gray acknowledged the tactic is used regularly within the department and particularly within certain units.
“I know it’s a tool that they use, our Metro Gang Unit uses it quite often,” Gray said. “By quite often, I can’t give exact numbers, but it is a tool that they definitely use to gain knowledge of what’s really happening and who’s connected.”
Gray also offered an explanation for why officers might not notify owners that their stolen cars are being used to track criminals.
“The reason we wouldn’t reach out to people is we never know who is connected to whom,” Gray said. “Getting that information out, putting that information out obviously then compromises the investigation.”
Gray said the department’s purpose behind the tactic was not to “be sneaky behind citizens’ backs.”
“It’s something that we actually take very seriously,” Gray said. “The goal here ultimately is we’re trying to take criminals off the streets so hopefully this doesn’t happen to somebody else.
It isn’t uncommon for police to use GPS trackers on stolen cars to monitor suspects.
The Utah Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division, for example, used to employ that tactic 4 to 5 years ago, according to spokesman Charlie Roberts, but it was done with the consent of car owners and the practice was ultimately discontinued due to advancements in car GPS technology.
Two former prosecutors told KSL the tactic is legal, but it does raise procedural and ethical questions.
Cottonwood Heights Police Sgt. Ryan Shosted said the department takes returning people’s property to them very seriously.
“When somebody reports something stolen to us, that’s our primary concern,” Shosted said. “Any chance we have to get somebody back their possessions—that’s ultimately our ‘job one’ and then also follow up with holding people who have taken it responsible.”
Dave Koch said the couple’s SUV logged 2,000 miles while stolen and sustained $10,000 of damage.
While it had been missing for 17 days, he said 5 hours could have potentially made a difference in some of the damage that was incurred.
“You know, if they contacted us, we might say, ‘if it’s okay with our insurance company, yeah keep it and see if it’s helpful to you,’” Tina Koch said. “To not even be involved in the decision-making or even know about it is inappropriate.”
The couple hoped Unified Police would reconsider notifying property owners in these cases.
“At least having an opportunity to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is part of, you know, our right,” Dave Koch said. “That’s kind of how we feel about it at this point.”
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