Florida lieutenant wants cell phone tracking law changed in missing persons cases

The answers to a nearly two-decade-old mystery could be hidden inside a phone, though in many cases, police cannot access it.

"Just imagine if it was your loved one, someone that was missing," said Lt. Brad Heath. You expect law enforcement to track them, for us to tell you we’re not able to track them because there’s no crime committed," said Winter Springs Lt. Brad Heath, referring to Florida Statute 934.42.

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The Florida law states, in part, that a judge can authorize mobile tracking if it "is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the investigating agency."

In other words, tracking cell phones are off limits unless they are connected to a criminal investigation.

Attorney Larry Walters, who specializes in the first amendment, said missing or endangered people do not fall into that category.

"We all have a right to be free from government surveillance, including tracking of our locations through our cell phone interactions with cell towers, and that includes people who might be missing," he said.

Winter Springs Lt. Heath thinks a change in the law could make a big difference in some of his cold cases, such as the disappearance of Rachel Yates.

"We would definitely have a different outcome, and possibly wouldn’t even be here doing this story," he said.

Rachel Yates vanished in June 2006. She went to a party in Deltona, which is about 23 miles north of Winter Springs, and, according to investigators, took a co-worker's car and drove off.

"She took a car to go somewhere, to get cigarettes maybe, but we don’t know for sure," said Yates' brother, Rick Wade. "And that led to her being chased down by other people at the party because it was not her car."

Authorities said the co-workers found Yates, brought the car back to the house, and left her on the side of the road, where she was reportedly last seen walking. 

Police obtained phone records that showed Yates made calls between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., before going silent. 

Due to the state law, investigators could not track her phone.

"When investigators brought the order to be able to track Rachel by her cell phone, it was denied by the judge," said Lt. Heath.

He'd like the state law to be changed to allow investigators the ability to track devices of people who are "suicidal, endangered, missing, or otherwise involved in an emergency situation that involves the risk of death of serious physical harm."

"I think it’s too broad, I think it’s subject to potential abuse, and it could be narrowed in a way that would allow the information being collected to be used for specific situation they’re investigating without invading privacy rights," said Attorney Larry Walters.

Yates’ family thinks a change in the law could make the difference between life and death, between knowing and living without a clue.

"I don’t think that day will ever come when we’re going to feel healed until we get the answer of what happened," said Yates' brother.

Rachel's last known address was in Winter Springs. It's part of state Sen. Jason Brodeur's district.

Could he propose a change to the law?

"As of now our office isn’t committing to anything until after the election. In the meantime we welcome any legislative proposals anyone wants to share with us," an aide for the senator told FOX 35 News in a statement.