If it’s legal to track politicians and spouses like wildlife, it shouldn’t be

2 April 2023

Like a bitter repeat divorcee who’s cynically always expecting the next romantic partner to betray them as their previous partners did — and who consequently only attracts future betrayers willing to briefly put up with the insecurity and paranoia that attitude engenders — Nevadans assume all politicians are corrupt, then act shocked when many of our politicians are, in fact, corruptible. 

Some of this attitude towards our own government is a lingering byproduct of the open bribery and smoke-filled rooms that were commonplace in American politics during the period of Nevada’s founding in the mid-19th century. Far too much of our attitude, however, is the intentional harvest of those who benefit from the lowered expectations this attitude engenders. 

Think of a man who insists that “all men are pigs” while he acts like a pig and you’ll get the idea.

This brings me to Robert Beadles — Lodi, California’s antisemitic prodigal son and the most convincing argument Northern Nevada has seen in years for building a wall on the Sierras and making California pay for it. According to him, election machines are inherently suspicious (a curious assertion from someone who made a fortune speculating on cryptocurrency), our local school district teaches our kids communism and supports sex trafficking, and our county officials and “Soros dependent” media are conspiring against him to do… something.

If that sounds like the sort of behavior one might expect from someone who wants to control our elections, our schools, our county government, and likely our media as well — well, we’ll come back to that.

He also swears he didn’t pay anyone to install GPS tracking devices on the cars of several Washoe County politicians. Trouble is, a recent report co-published by The Nevada Independent and KUNR shows that his PAC very well might have — or, at the very least, paid handsomely one of the same private investigators who allegedly planted the GPS devices in the first place.

If you’re wondering whether it’s legal to attach GPS devices to other people’s cars, the answer is, well, it depends. If you’re the police, per United States v. Jones and United States v. Katzin, you can — but you better get a warrant first. If you’re an employer and you’re trying to track your employees, the answer, as explained in multiple court cases, is likely yes — an answer which remains true even if you’re a public employer

If you’re a private citizen seeking to track another private citizen, however, it depends on the state your target vehicle is currently in. In Florida and Louisiana, for example, knowingly installing a tracking device on another person’s property (including a car) without the other person’s consent is generally prohibited, though there are exceptions for caregivers of minor children and elderly or disabled adults. Similar prohibitions exist in Texas, Oklahoma, and Utah, too.

In Nevada, meanwhile, there are no statutes explicitly prohibiting the installation of tracking devices on other people’s property, though stalking — committing actions which would make a reasonable person feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, harassed or fearful of their immediate safety or the immediate safety of a family or household member — remains thoroughly illegal.

With that in mind, if I hired a private investigator to attach a GPS device to your car, would you feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, harassed, or fearful of your or your family’s immediate safety? Should the answer change because you were elected to public office?

Politicians are expected, of course, to live more transparent lives than most of us. In exchange for wielding whatever delegated authority our political process grants a specific elected official, we expect to be able to hold them accountable whether they’re technically “on the clock” — working in a legislative session or sitting in a public meeting — or not. Being able to investigate who a specific politician is spending time with is an important part of determining who their friends and supporters are.

We don’t, however, need to use GPS tracking devices to hold politicians accountable. 

A GPS tracker wouldn’t have helped anyone learn that Reno City Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus backed her car into an unhoused woman during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a public restroom. A GPS tracker similarly wouldn’t have helped the state Ethics Commission conclude whether it should recommend Reno City Councilman Devon Reese abstain from voting on matters involving his law firm’s clients, regardless of what City Attorney Karl Hall’s office thought about the propriety of the votes beforehand.

A GPS tracker wouldn’t even tell you how seriously to take Hall’s legal opinions, but this paragraph may provide a helpful refresher. Karl once hired private investigators, instead of the city police department, to investigate strip clubs because his wife owned property across the street from one of the strip clubs he was investigating and he didn’t want any inconvenient public records between his office and the police department to point the finger back at his office. He’s also the one who also attempted to defend the city from a sexual harassment charge by demanding a list of workplace lovers from one of the plaintiffs.

In fact, if you’re a Reno city councilman and you’re reading this column, might I helpfully suggest you seek a second opinion — perhaps from one of your colleagues at your law firm, should you happen to be a partner at one — after you receive an opinion from your city attorney’s office? I’m not saying your city attorney’s office is a festering wastebasket of incompetence, but I am saying Reno’s voters keep electing one to run the place and that might be affecting the quality of its legal scholarship.

Returning to the propriety of tagging our politicians like local wildlife, however, the GPS tracker attached to the personal cars belonging to Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve and former Washoe County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung had nothing to do with holding anyone accountable. 

Getting lost in the trees for a moment, GPS tracking an elected official’s car gives you the location of the car, not the elected official. Hartung’s car, for example, was also driven by his wife and daughters. Since GPS data can’t tell us who’s driving a tracked car — the elected official, a family member, a friend, a mechanic performing a post-repair test drive, the new owner of a recently sold vehicle — it doesn’t provide useful investigative information.

Zooming out to the forest, meanwhile, the GPS tracking device was left on Schieve’s and Hartung’s cars for several months. If it was installed to investigate someone, it would have been taken off once the desired information was either recovered or proven to be unrecoverable through a GPS tracking device. That it was still on Schieve’s car months after the election proves it was surreptitiously installed to be found.

In other words, Beadles — or, at the very least, people he openly supports, whomever they might turn out to be — wanted to send a message.

Well, a pair of fellow Washoe County elected officials received the message loud and clear. Assemblywoman Jill Dickman (R-Sparks) and Assemblywoman Selena La Rue Hatch (D-Reno) have jointly presented AB356, which seeks to prevent people like Beadles‘s friends, private investigators, PAC, etc. — yes, I’m tired of pretending he didn’t do this, too, but until the courts have their say, we all have to pretend he’s not just playing dumb — from installing tracking devices on other people’s stuff without their explicit consent. If the bill is further amended as La Rue Hatch recommends, it will require anyone outside of law enforcement who seeks to install a GPS tracking device on someone’s car to ask the owner’s permission first before installing it.

Their motivation behind presenting the bill, as they explained in a brief and excellent joint presentation with Serena Evans, policy director for the Nevada Coalition to END Domestic and Sexual Violence, is to ensure controlling, abusive jerks, whether they happen to be politically or romantically motivated, can’t use tracking devices to intimidate their victims. It doesn’t matter whether that person might happen to be an abusive spouse or someone trying to impress an antisemitic cryptocurrency millionaire for internet points — once they, or the private investigators they hire, place a tracking device on someone else’s property without their consent, they’ll be breaking the law by default. Victims will no longer have to prove the installation of the tracking device is an act of intimidation — they won’t, in other words, have to prove they’re being stalked before they can prove they shouldn’t have their location surreptitiously monitored against their will.

That this isn’t already illegal is frankly maddening. No, of course I shouldn’t have the right to attach a GPS device to my wife’s car without her knowledge, just as I shouldn’t have the right to attach a GPS device to your car without your knowledge, nor should you have the right to attach GPS devices to my car or my wife’s car. It shouldn’t have taken the Legislature this long to statutorily prohibit people from electronically following other people around without their knowledge or permission. This isn’t complicated.

Thankfully, for a particularly arch and dark definition of “thankfully,” Beadles and the abusive people he supports inadvertently surfaced a long overlooked legal loophole into the public eye. Thankfully, for a particularly earnest and positive definition of “thankfully,” two of Washoe County’s legislators crossed partisan lines to draft a short but sweet bill to put an end to that sort of behavior in this state, once and for all. If the Legislature can collectively agree to support the bill — I’ll be looking at the final vote in both houses on this bill with a very careful eye, by the way — Nevadans will be able to rest more securely with the knowledge that abusive, intrusive jerks will be held to account if they try to intimidate others with their expensive toys.

David Colborne ran for office twice. He is now an IT manager, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Mastodon @[email protected], on Twitter @DavidColborne, or email him at [email protected]

The post If it’s legal to track politicians and spouses like wildlife, it shouldn’t be appeared first on The Nevada Independent.

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