Mass hold-up after US bank heist puts spotlight on high-tech policing

THE afternoon of June 2, Colorado police say, a former music teacher named Christian Paetsch walked into a Wells Fargo bank waving a gun and ordered everyone to lie down.

About 15 minutes later, a phalanx of police cars descended upon an intersection a few kilometres away, blockading dozens of shocked motorists - including Paetsch, whom the authorities had tracked with a GPS device buried in the $US26,000 he is accused of stealing.

But with only the faintest physical description and unsure which vehicle the device was in, the police trained their weapons on all 20 cars at the intersection and ordered people to show their hands. For nearly two hours, the police ordered every driver and passenger to step out of their cars, even handcuffing some of them, before discovering the missing money and two loaded firearms in Paetsch's vehicle.

The case, now winding its way through the US federal court system, shows that while advanced technology gives police the power to shadow a suspect moments after a crime is committed, there are still legal questions over how wide a net the authorities can cast while in pursuit.

At issue is not Paetsch's involvement in the robbery. Rather, his lawyer, Matthew Belcher, has argued that evidence seized from Paetsch's vehicle should be thrown out on the grounds that the roadblock was unconstitutional.

The US constitution's Fourth Amendment, Mr Belcher said, should keep the police from rounding up large groups of people at gunpoint based merely on a hunch.

''Basically, the law is there to prevent the cops from doing exactly what they did,'' Mr Belcher said, ''from stopping 20 to 30 people without any specific facts leading them to say that one person did it.''

Federal prosecutors argued that the roadblock was the safest option, given the potential for a high-speed chase through Aurora, a city that is part of Denver.

Moreover, they said, the tracking device showed the bank robber was at a specific intersection, allowing the police to tailor the roadblock.

Last month, Judge William Martinez in Denver agreed, ruling that the detention of the other motorists was justified, given that a potentially dangerous criminal was on the loose.

The judge also said, however, that he was troubled by the invasive tactics used by the police towards motorists caught in the blockade.

According to the defence, among the indignities endured by citizens caught in the roadblock, a four-year-old girl urinated on herself while strapped in her car seat and a woman was ordered to crawl through a passenger-side door and was then handcuffed in front of her son.

Court filings show that the FBI used a hand-held tracking device to determine which vehicle was emitting the satellite signal. But it took nearly an hour for the FBI to arrive at the intersection with the device.

Crystal Deguzman and her son, Mike Hance, 16, who were going to the grocery store, were ordered to keep their hands in the air for more than an hour, she said, and were handcuffed before being released.

''I was shaking driving home that day,'' she said. ''I don't really like to drive any more because I'm scared that's going to happen again.''

Within days, Chief Dan Oates of the Aurora police department and his deputy apologised to those caught in the roadblock. But he also defended his department's actions.

Mr Oates said he had never encountered such a scene. Since then, he said, his department had begun using hand-held tracking devices to speed up response times and implemented procedures to better isolate cars being pursued. ''This is a classic case of law enforcement practices catching up to modern technology,'' he said. ''None of us saw this coming.''

David Lane, a lawyer, is representing Ms Deguzman and passengers in five other cars and said his clients would seek a settlement with the city.

Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University, predicted that as the police relied more on technology, more cases like Paetsch's would emerge.

''This technology creates a new legal situation in that there's a real-time guarantee that the loot is in the car at an intersection at that exact time,'' Professor Kerr said. ''The question becomes whether the police were reasonable in stopping all the cars at the intersection and did they hold everyone for a reasonable period of time.''

The New York Times

This story Mass hold-up after US bank heist puts spotlight on high-tech policing first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.