Published: July, 2018| BWJP

Domestic violence perpetrators are increasingly using technology to stalk and harass their victims, often through the victim’s cell phone. Until recently, if a victim surrendered her cell phone for examination, she could be without the device for anywhere from a few hours to a few days. As a victim’s cell phone is a necessary link to safety, the loss of a cell phone for even a short period is a significant problem, especially in rural areas.

Dakota County, Minnesota, the third most populous county in the state with 412,000+ residents, has taken a proactive approach to addressing this problem with a project dedicated to electronic domestic violence crimes that was funded by the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) under the Improving Criminal Justice Response (ICJR) grant program.  The grant expands an existing Electronic Crimes Unit (ECU) of the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office. The ECU, which has focused on all cases involving electronic evidence, now has expanded capacity to better serve victims of sexual and domestic violence. Of special note is their ability to obtain evidence from victims wherever convenient - at their place of residence or while seeking medical care following an incident – and now the process typically takes less than an hour!

Cooperation is key to the ECU’s Success

In 2015, the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office received an initial ICJR grant to expand their ECU to address online stalking and its connection with domestic abuse. Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie championed the formation of the Dakota County Electronic Crimes Task Force, a joint effort of the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office and municipal law enforcement agencies in the county (Apple Valley, Burnsville, Farmington, Hastings, Mendota Heights, Rosemount, South St. Paul, and West St. Paul; and later, Inver Grove Heights and Lakeville, as well as the Dakota County Drug Task Force.) 

All local police agencies have been trained to gain a working understanding of the ECU’s ability to extract information from electronic devices. Generally, responding officers contact the ECU when technology is involved in a crime, but advocacy plays an important role as well. 360 Communities, the local program that operates two DV shelters, has seven advocates co-located in police departments within the county. They regularly see technology-related violations when assisting victims with Orders for Protection. When advocates work with victims who suspect they are being stalked electronically, they can assist with arrangements for the ECU to come to the shelter, if she is a resident, or to the victim’s home. The ECU then checks the phone for spyware, GPS, malware or other tracking applications. Hundreds of apps are available to enable stalking, according to a recent article in the New York Times. While the Sheriff’s Office does not have a special outfitted vehicle yet, they are considering it. Nevertheless, the unit’s mobile response breaks down barriers for victims.

The task force pursues evidence recovered from cell phones, digital media, and email, boosting investigations and leading to higher conviction rates.  In recognition of their remarkable efforts, the task force was honored in 2016 with the Local Government Innovation Award from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Electronic Evidence in DV Cases

While violations of Protection Orders due to hacking an email or a Facebook account may be dismissed as a nuisance by others, these violations often cause terror in the victim who knows too well the danger posed by her abuser. Obtaining supporting electronic evidence in these cases is important, though many jurisdictions do not give them top priority for investigations, resulting in dismissals. In fact, in 2014 the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women surveyed its members about concerns involving protection orders and found that lack of enforcement of technological violations was the number one complaint.

Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie

“Enforcing misdemeanor violations is important” says Sheriff Leslie, “because the abusers know they’re getting away with violations.” In addition, thorough investigations of electronic evidence involved in misdemeanor DV crimes or protection order violations may uncover serious stalking offenses that should be addressed due to the greater lethality risk linked to stalking in DV cases.

The current ICJR grant award will be used to further enhance the efforts of the Dakota County Electronic Crime Task Force to protect women from crimes of violence and to investigate and prosecute offenders. The grant will also provide for the establishment of an electronic crimes database to allow for the analysis of trends, connections to violations of protective orders, improving prosecution, tracking repeat offenders, calculating numbers of victims having their devices examined, and the role of electronic crimes in domestic/sexual violence homicides.  The Sheriff’s Office hopes that this database will help develop protocols and policies related to case coordination, victim safety, and offender accountability from the initial 911 call to case disposition.

The Electronic Crime Unit in Action

The process of “milling”

The ECU was started in 2003 to investigate hard drives, cell phones, and electronic devices used in peer-to-peer pornography, identity theft, and financial crimes.  With the increased use of smart phones, essentially a small computer, more and more crimes have a technology component. In just the last two years, the ECU has found computers, cell phones, GPS tracking devices, cloud storage, and security cameras used for stalking and domestic violence.  They have identified key loggers and spyware installed on victims’ computers and cell phones. Offenders have accessed victims’ Google accounts, e-mails, and calendar entries, and also attempted to access footage from home security cameras.

The Electronic Crime Unit uses cutting edge technology to process electronic devices and evidence for all types of crimes. Figure 1. shows the process of “milling”, where a portion of the board is removed so the microchip from a mobile device can be accessed after being removed. Figure 2 shows the process where the microchip is cleaned and refined before it can be read by a chip reader.

Detective Ryan Olson demonstrates the process of cleaning and refining the microchip so it can be read by a chip reader.

Currently, the ECU consists of seven staff: 2 civilian forensic examiners and 1.5 detectives from the sheriff’s office, 1 detective each from the Burnsville and Apple Valley Police Departments, and a part-time detective from the Lakeville Police Department.

For more information, contact Sheriff Tim Leslie at tim.leslie@co.dakota.mn.us.