Police Can Now 'Ping' Cellphones to Find Missing Persons

Dec 29, 2014

Police officers now have a new way to pinpoint the location of missing persons within the commonwealth.

Senate Bill 1290, known as the Kelsey Smith Act, gives law enforcement the ability to request GPS information from cell phone providers in the event of a life-threatening emergency.

“[The bill] allows for during an emergency situation for an officer to go to carrier – be it AT&T, Verizon – and say to them, ‘We need to know where that phone is at, and we need to know where it is at now,’” said state Representative Dom Costa (D-Allegheny).

Kelsey Smith was abducted, raped and murdered in Kansas in 2007. The 18-year old’s body was found four days after the abduction as a result of GPS cell phone data, despite pleas by her parents and local law enforcement to release the information sooner.

Before the passage of SB 1290 this October, law enforcement officers in Pennsylvania needed either a search warrant or a court-ordered subpoena to obtain the GPS location of a missing person’s cell phone.

The change to that procedure was unanimously approved by both chambers of the state Legislature and signed by the governor.

“Law enforcement needs those special tools in order to save lives,” Costa said. “This is a very, very good bill because it could have probably saved a lot of lives in the past and I’m sure that it will in the future.”

Costa is a former Chief of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau. The author of the bill, state Senator Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny), served as police sergeant in Shaler Township. As former police officers, they bring a different perspective to issues involving law enforcement, Costa explains.

“We [former police officers] take these bills to heart because we have lived this stuff. We see the anxiety on people’s faces when a loved one is lost. And you see the frustration when you tell them what you had to go through to just try and get basic information.”

Costa stressed the bill is intended for emergency situations only, including attempts to locate a missing person who might be a threat to themselves or in cases of perceived abduction.