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Originally published June 15, 2013 at 6:00 PM | Page modified June 16, 2013 at 10:41 AM

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Privacy laws applied backward

While a built-in GPS system appeared to find Andy Denzel’s stolen iPad, the technology only led the frustrated firefighter down a legal rabbit hole.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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At first Andy Denzel felt a little thrill of the chase. Like some private eye, he was solving the crime that had been committed against him. All the police would have to do is show up.

Except then the police did show up. At which point the chase came to a screeching halt.

“I think we had the thief, with my stuff, just 20 feet away,” Denzel says. “The cops said, ‘You’re probably right, but we can’t do anything about it.’ It was incredibly frustrating.”

Denzel fell down a crime-fighting rabbit-hole when he and his wife came home recently to find their North Seattle house ransacked. Gone was at least $10,000 worth of laptops, cameras and other electronics, including an Apple iPad.

After the police left, Denzel decided to see if a software app on his phone could track his stolen iPad using that device’s GPS. He turned it on and got nothing, so he turned in for the night.

Around 3 a.m., it rang. Someone had turned on his iPad. Denzel, 31, tracked it to a house in Mountlake Terrace. Where, before he really thought about what he was doing, he found himself crouched outside his darkened car, waiting for local police to arrive.

“On my screen I could see the red dot for the iPad, right at the back of the house,” Denzel said. “I felt certain I was at least going to get the iPad back.”

Then the stakes went up. When the Mountlake Terrace police got there, they told Denzel that an occupant of the house had previous convictions for burglary. So it was likely he had helped find a career criminal.

But then, after calling a supervisor, the cops said “sorry.” They’d love to bust the guy. But they couldn’t do anything at that time, and so they left.

Commander Don Duncan defended his officers when I called. The situation is maddening, he said, but in the cops’ judgment there was no way they were going to be able to get a search warrant.

“The ping was from the backyard of the house, but those pings are not always exact,” Duncan said. “You need more to convince a judge you have probable cause to go in. What if the GPS is sending you to the wrong house?”

Police can instead elect to knock on the door and try to wangle permission to come in (called a “knock and talk”). At that moment an alarm on the iPad could be sounded. Some burglars have been caught this way.

But police chose not to knock “because it would have alerted the individual and compromised any further investigation,” Duncan said.

Denzel gets that, but wonders: What further investigation? The case was turned over to Seattle police — because that’s where the burglary happened — but Seattle cops didn’t, or wouldn’t, come out even when the pinging from the Mountlake Terrace house lasted through the following day, Denzel says.

Sgt. Sean Whitcomb says Seattle police probably wouldn’t have tried to go in, either.

“We know how frustrating it is, but these are the rules,” Whitcomb said. “You have to show probable cause a crime occurred. The GPS doesn’t do it.”

Not even a ping from the house of a previously convicted burglar?

“The bad guys have the same rights as everybody else,” says Duncan.

Whitcomb added the investigation is ongoing, but police didn’t have the resources to monitor the house.

Denzel, a firefighter by trade, drove by his pinging iPad a few times and considered trying to get it himself. His wife and friends talked him down. Later, he saw his iPad had moved again, settling in a house in Seattle. Then it went dark.

He’s left to ponder an irony of our high-tech age.

Namely, that while the government seems both willing and able to snoop on the electronic lives of all citizens, law-abiding or no, it won’t knock on this guy’s door even when there’s technological reason to be suspicious.

“Who we give privacy rights to, and when, and how much — it all seems a little confused,” Denzel said. “Or maybe backwards.”

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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