By ELLEN STODOLA
ANNAPOLIS (February 16, 2012)—Two Maryland legislators are using a recent Supreme Court decision to pressure the Department of Natural Resources into releasing warrants used to install GPS tracking devices on several boats last year.
They're also pushing legislation that would explicitly prohibit the department from using GPS on boats without court orders.
SB 101, introduced by Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, specifically addresses GPS devices and indicates they should only be used with a court order, with the expectation that the installation could yield results pertaining to an ongoing criminal investigation.
"Even Dorchester County watermen have constitutional rights," said Colburn, in response to incidents last year when several watermen found GPS tracking devices on their vessels.
Though the Department of Natural Resources maintains it had warrants for the instances in Dorchester County, it is refusing to release copies of the applications for warrants or copies of the actual warrants.
In a letter dated Feb. 3, Deputy Attorney General John Howard confirmed that the Natural Resources Police had court orders "authorizing the placement of tracking devices for the investigation of natural resource violations."
The Department of Natural Resources said the warrants are part of investigative files, explaining the reason they are not being released.
"The Natural Resources Police use the tracking devices as an investigative tool," said Sgt. Art Windemuth, spokesman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police. Windemuth said the devices are always used in conjunction with necessary warrants, but he wouldn't go into specifics in these instances.
But like Colburn, Delegate Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil, believes watermen's rights need to be better protected.
Smigiel intends to continue pushing for more information on the warrants, even threatening legal action, despite receiving the letter from Howard saying the Attorney General's office believes Secretary of Natural Resources John Griffin acted within his discretion.
"I'll take you to court," said Smigiel, after repeated insistence by Griffin at an Eastern Shore Delegation meeting that the information was confidential and was part of an ongoing investigation.
But the letter makes clear that should Smigiel go forward with a lawsuit, the Attorney General's office would side with the Department of Natural Resources.
Smigiel and Colburn have been trying to obtain information since last year, even before the Supreme Court decision, about the tracking devices through legislation, letters and questioning of representatives of the Department of Natural Resources.
Smigiel said he knew how the Supreme Court decision would come down, and now that the decision has been made, he plans to introduce legislation similar to the bill Colburn introduced in the senate.
"It's outrageous that they won't disclose the name of the judge," said Smigiel, who was unsuccessful in getting more information about the judge who issued the warrants.
Smigiel also said he finds it outrageous that the Department of Natural Resources won't give its reasons for probable cause for obtaining the warrants in the first place.
He said he means no disrespect to the Department of Natural Resources, but that he has a "profound respect for the Constitution," and believes this is a matter where individual rights are being infringed upon.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said he agrees police definitely should have a warrant to install tracking devices on boats, especially after the Supreme Court decision.
He doesn't believe GPS tracking is a tactic that is necessary to monitor all watermen because there are only "a few bad apples."
Simns said there are other methods of monitoring boats and watermen that are being explored.
A representative for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries said the department does not use GPS trackers to monitor boats in its waterways.
Lee Walker, the Agency Outreach director for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said that while they use some tracking to study wildlife, it's not something they routinely install on vessels to monitor boats.
I've never seen it done here, he said.