ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – New data sheds light on how local law enforcement has turned to digital searches in New Mexico. Reports compiled by New Mexico’s Attorney General show that from 2021 to 2022, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) more than doubled the number of electronic communication content records they obtained from 1,164,602 in 2021 to over 2.7 million the following year. While APD is the largest overall collector in the state, dozens of other agencies also collect digital data, usually with a warrant.

Collected information

New Mexico law enforcement agencies can collect a wide range of data under the state’s laws and guided by warrants. That includes collecting communication records, location data, and device information.

Both location and communication data are collected in relatively large quantities. APD, for example, collected over 1.6 million location information records in 2022, the reports show. But that does not mean they collected data from millions of people.

“Each request for a person’s location over a time period can produce hundreds or thousands of individual location records for that one person,” explains APD spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos. And “Electronic evidence is present on nearly every crime,” he says.

Uptick in collection

The reports show multiple law enforcement agencies in New Mexico have increased the number of times they collected electronic information in 2022, the most recently available data. Several agencies more than doubled the collection from the previous year.

APD went from seeking or obtaining electronic information 258 times in 2021 to 449 times in 2022. For APD, part of the uptick was the start of a new investigation team.

“APD started the Digital Intel Team in 2021 to help ensure we analyze all available evidence of our most serious crimes,” Gallegos says. “It takes time and expertise to efficiently filter through [electronic evidence] to help make a case.”

Among the local law enforcement agencies in the state, APD is the biggest collector of electronic data, according to the New Mexico Attorney General reports. In 2022, APD sought and obtained data more often than both New Mexico State Police and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office combined.

“We are the only department in the state with full time professional staff who analyzes and works directly with our detectives on understanding this type of evidence,” Gallegos says. “It has paid large dividends in our homicide and other crime clearance rates.”

Still, smaller agencies are using digital evidence as well. The Santa Fe Police Department, Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, the Carlsbad Police Department, and the Alamogordo Police Department are among those who reported requesting or obtaining data in 2022.

It’s not just police departments that collect electronic data. The New Mexico Livestock Board reports collecting data in a few instances. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish reported obtaining a few location information records, as did the Office of the New Mexico Attorney General.

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Data shows which departments rely more heavily on electronic communications in investigations.

Legal limits

Local law enforcement in New Mexico is limited to how they collect information under the state’s Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Signed into law in 2019, the act goes beyond federal limits guiding law enforcement to establish both transparency requirements and rules for when agencies can access data.

Under the law, police generally can’t force non-authorized possessors (third parties) to let police access a device that isn’t theirs without a warrant. Police also generally have to ask a judge for a warrant, have permission from the device owner, or have a wiretap order in order to access digital data. But the law does let police access data without a warrant if they believe in “good faith that an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury” necessitates accessing data.

“The only times we are not writing [a] warrant for this information is under exigent circumstances, like an amber alert, mass shooting threat, suicidal subject, search and rescue and so on,” says Gallegos. “By and large, we use warrants to obtain this information.”

Before the law went into effect, local rights advocates worried local police – essentially only subject to federal regulations considered outdated – might overstep civil rights while conducting investigations.

“There’s no reason for email to have less protections than snail mail. Yet today [in 2017] law enforcement can search much of your electronic communications without a warrant, including your old emails, texts, chats, social media posts, even your Dropbox and other cloud storage, all without ever going to a judge.” Steven Robert Allen, the former director of public policy at the ACLU of New Mexico said in a 2017 press release.

Ultimately, both the New Mexico House and Senate voted unanimously to approve the act. Now, most information requests, like location data, have to be approved by prosecutors and district court judges, Gallegos from APD says.

“We highly value the privacy rights of everyone we serve and take seriously the trust put into us to seize this data with a judge overseeing it so that we can bring justice to the victims of these crimes,” Gallegos says. “Electronic evidence provides corroborating evidence to a witness or suspect’s story and provides missing context to many investigations as people text their intent, location or take video and photos to provide crucial evidence later in trial.”