An ASSET in the Field: Smartphone Apps Making a Change in Law Enforcement

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It seems like in today’s culture, we cannot go anywhere without constantly using our smartphones.  Accessing the internet at a moment’s notice is nothing out of the ordinary, and applications (also known as “apps”) have become critical research tools for students and professionals alike.  One app in particular has the potential to make a huge difference in the way law enforcement works day today—ASSET: the Arrest, Search, and Seizure Electronic Tool, was developed by the UNC School of Government and provides the most up-to-date information for criminal procedure in North Carolina.  This interactive app for the iPhone and iPad links to Arrest, Search, and Investigation in North Carolina, 4th Edition, by Robert L. Farb, also published by the UNC School of Government.

What is ASSET?

ASSET aims to give North Carolina law enforcement officers instant access to vital information about various legal issues officers face every day, on topics ranging from Terry investigative stops to warrantless searches.  The legal material ASSET provides was compiled by UNC faculty member Jeff Welty, an expert in the law of search and seizure, who regularly trains judges, lawyers and police officers in the subject.

The app itself consists of seven topics relating to criminal procedure law, beginning with arrest and detention, and then moving to digital investigation, interrogation, search warrants, and warrantless searches, to name a few.  Users can research through the ‘navigation’ feature, table of contents, and search function.  Bookmarks keep track of recently searched topics and are useful for police officers in the field who deal with similar issues frequently.  The ‘offline viewing’ feature could also be critical for law enforcement in the field.  Once the app is downloaded, virtually all the content is available for offline use, which is especially helpful in dead zones where cell reception and WiFi networks do not reach.  This allows police to stay up-to-speed on where the law stands even when they might not be able to access an Internet browser.  For example, if an officer were in a situation where he needed to know whether he could enter the premises without a warrant, he could quickly check the ‘arrest and detention’ section, view ‘arrest,’ ‘entry of premises,’ and read the thumbnail version of law in that particular area.

The app also contains links to relevant North Carolina statutes and includes statutory and constitutional rules with definitions of each.  One potential drawback may be that the information is written in legal terms in paragraph form, which may not be conducive to the split-second decisions many police officers must make.  However, the app is labeled clearly, is intuitive, and an improvement in giving the police access to the law which they are directly enforcing.  Easy access to this technology may cut down on illegal arrests, searches, and seizures if officers know how to use the application quickly.

ASSETs in other areas, or is big brother watching?

Similar to the ASSET app, Salient Federal Solutions has developed the Voyager Query for Law Enforcement app, which has expanded to Apple operating systems and Android mobile platforms.  According to Brad Antle, CEO of Salient, the “need for mission-critical solutions is becoming more in demand,” and the expansion of the Voyager app “provides agencies maximum deployment flexibility.”  The Voyager app in particular is used by police to gain access to certain law enforcement databases, such as the FBI’s National Crime Information Center and the International Justice and Public Safety Network to assist officers in the field.  The hope with the Voyager and ASSET apps is that law enforcement will be able to perform their duties with as much current information at their fingertips as possible, making their jobs safer and more efficient.

In contrast to scholarly and informative apps like ASSET and Voyager, other apps have created more controversy.  The ‘See Something, Send Something’ app used by Pennsylvania State Police was initially created to help state police become aware of suspicious activity that may be linked to terrorism.  The app allows users to take a picture or send a note to the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center, notifying police as anonymously as possible and allowing anyone with a smartphone to get in on the action and be an informant.  If additional investigation is needed after reviewing the anonymous tips, the tip is forwarded to the appropriate investigators.  My Mobile Witness, the creator of the app, has attempted to use privacy protection software to safeguard the citizen-reporters and their information, including their location or other personal info, but many are skeptical of just how much privacy they would retain.

A similar app was recently proposed as a result of the YouTube video of a young man being beaten over a $20 debt in Newark, New Jersey, which occurred in February.  The app will allow ordinary citizens to provide anonymous tips to authorities in an effort to encourage witnesses to come forward with information in future crimes.  Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. proposes that instead of using technology to record and upload crimes for the world to see, technology should be used “for good by giving law-abiding citizens the power to anonymously report criminal activity.”

The criticism of these types of apps has been harsh, and rightly so in some circumstances.  Some citizens have called the recording apps a huge privacy threat and compare it to Big Brother watching, while others fear the apps will lead to wrongful accusations.  Apps like the My Mobile Witness app bring up many constitutional issues including privacy and probable cause, and question whether the informants can be trusted and verified.  Rather than helping law enforcement do their job, these apps could potentially inundate the system with unfounded allegations of criminal activity, leading to even more arrest, search, and seizure problems which the ASSET app is trying to alleviate.  Despite these outcries, several officers seem to think the technology will make their communities safer by giving them “more eyes out there,” and that technology has already helped with homicides, aggravated assaults, and drug activity in York County, Pennsylvania.

A helpful ASSET when used correctly

In many ways, the ASSET app is designed to combat the issues the other ‘citizen arrest’ apps have created.  Giving law enforcement quick and easy access to criminal procedure law in a fairly easy-to-read format, has the potential to effect greater accuracy and efficiency in the legal system.  One of the best features to the ASSET app is that it will be continuously updated as the law changes.  If officers have a working knowledge of the app, bookmark topics they use frequently, and take a brief moment when possible to reference the app, potentially unconstitutional police action could be prevented and law enforcement can use their resources more effectively.



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About Sarah Bowman, Former Associate Editor (9 Articles)
Sarah Bowman served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. She was also the Moot Court Chair for the Old Kivett Advocacy Council and the Vice Dean for Delta Theta Phi Law Fraternity. She is originally from Asheville, North Carolina, and graduated from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science and a minor in Spanish. Her previous legal employment includes summer internships with the Property Control Section of the N.C. Department of Justice, the Gillett-Stallings Law Office, and a research position as a Webster’s Scholar for Professor Patrick Hetrick. Sarah graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2014.
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