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San Rafael Man Wants Cops to Talk About Tracking Device on Car

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An Arab-American man in San Rafael--a U.S. citizen and long-time Marin County resident--is accusing police of secretly attaching a GPS tracking device to his car.
 
That allegation from retired grocery and gas-station owner Abdo Alwareeth stems from a 2008 incident and comes just two weeks after a similar case in the South Bay. That's where an Arab-American junior college student discovered that a tracking device had been installed on his vehicle by the FBI.
 
Civil liberties lawyers say they believe there may be numerous other cases of authorities tracking individuals without warrants.  But the courts are split on whether a warrant is even needed.
 
Alwareeth says that he found the device under his car two years ago while taking an auto maintenance class. After he retired, Alwareeth says, he wanted to do community service and signed up to become an in-home care worker in Marin County. The county paid car expenses to staff who took the auto repair class, that included examining the undercarriage of each student's car.
 
"Here is this big wiring tracking system underneath my car by the gas tank," Alwareeth said. "The teacher told everyone to get out of the garage because he believed it was a bomb."

Then Alwareeth pulled the magnetically attached GPS from the car and removed the batteries.

About two weeks later a San Rafael police officer stopped by a local garage where Alwareeth had taken his car for an oil change, he says. The officer told him the device was attached to his car by mistake, and gave Alwareeth his business card.

Although Alwareeth pressed the officer for more information on the device and filed a letter of complaint with the San Rafael police chief, he has never received an explanation.

A San Rafael police spokeswoman confirmed this week that the department had tried to retrieve the tracking device from Alwareeth. The spokeswoman said she couldn't comment further because the device did not belong to the department, and she declined to say who it did belong to.
 
"This is how they make us feel, like we're being tracked -- tracked for what?" Alwareeth asks. "I would rather that the FBI came to my house and sat with me and learned from me who I am."

Alwareeth came to the United States from Yemen about 40 years ago, and became a citizen in 1975. He owned a grocery store and several gas stations before retiring in 2005. In all his years in the U.S. he's only received one traffic ticket, he says.

He says that he wishes the police would simply say that they suspect him because he is Arabic and Muslim.

"Why [have] I been singled out?" he said. "I thought I would be treated as Americans are treated. But we are not treated like Americans."

Alwareeth’s attorney Veena Dubal says it's unclear whether Alwareeth has any legal remedy. A January ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that it's permissible for police to install a tracking device  without a search warrant.

"They said it didn't violate your Fourth Amendment rights because you don't have any reasonable expectation of privacy in your own driveway," Dubal said.

Dubal is working with attorneys from the Council on American Islamic Relations and the American Civil Liberties Union to document police surveillance practices.

"We know that it's not a one or two time event and we know that its not just the federal government that's doing it, but local law enforcement as well," Dubal said. "We've heard other stories from folks across the country who've experience similar things."

Not all state and federal courts agree with the Ninth Circuit. Washington State Supreme Court has held that under state law local police must obtain a warrant for GPS tracking. This summer, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. ruled that federal agents need a warrant to track suspects. Dubal says the issue is likely to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For now, Abdo Alawareeth says he, his wife and their two college-age children check underneath their cars every day.

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