Dilemma: Privacy is More Important than Life?

Adults are adults, and sometimes need to get away from each other. Police are not supposed to be referees in personal relationships. But sometimes that is taken to extremes, as just happened near Seattle, WA, where the King County (Seattle is in King County) Sheriffs Department took 8 days to start looking for an accident victim. Once they started looking, a cell phone signal found her crash site rapidly.

During the eight days that Tanya Rider lay seriously injured in her crashed SUV, her husband was fighting red tape to get authorities to launch a search for her, he said Friday.
Rider, 33, was found alive but dehydrated at the bottom of a steep ravine on Thursday, more than a week after she failed to return home from work.

Authorities had been able to detect the general location of her cell phone that morning, then searched along the highway she traveled from work in suburban Seattle to her Maple Valley home. They noticed some matted brush, and below it they found Rider’s Honda Element, smashed on its side

Friday morning, Rider was sedated in critical condition and fighting for her life at Harborview Medical Center, her husband, Tom Rider said.
He said her kidneys failed but were slowly recovering, adding that she also was being treated for extensive sores from lying in the same position for a week and nearly had to have a leg amputated.

But the officials didn’t look for her for days because sometimes adults just don’t return home. What is a “missing person?” How long? How about a general welfare contact, without putting the two parties in contact with each other?

Tom Rider said he tried that, but “the first operator I talked to on the first day I tried to report it flat denied to start a missing persons report because she didn’t meet the criteria,” he said.
“I basically hounded them until they started a case and then, of course, I was the first focal point, so I tried to get myself out of the way as quickly as possible. I let them search the house. I told them they didn’t have to have a warrant for anything, just ask,” he said.
Tom Rider said he also drove the route where his wife was found but didn’t see any sign of a crash. He also offered a $25,000 reward for any information leading to her safe return.
Thursday morning, detectives asked him to come in to sign for a search of phone records. They also asked him to take a polygraph test.
“By the time he was done explaining the polygraph test to me, the detective burst into the room with a cell phone map that had a circle on it,” Tom Rider said Friday. He said the detective started explaining the blip they had found and within minutes, news arrived that Tanya Rider had been found.
Her car had tumbled about 20 feet down a ravine and lay buried below heavy brush and blackberry bushes. The air bags deployed, but she was injured and trapped. Rescuers had to cut the roof off to get her out.

The police here immediately jump to the assumption that the husband is a (the) suspect. Even on a heavily traveled road, it is quite possible for a vehicle to go off the road and no one will notice. Instead the first action is a questionable polygraph test (yes, I’ve taken them and “passed”).

A King County Sheriff’s spokesman expressed sympathy but said the agency followed standard procedure in the case. “That’s a terrible, terrible experience … a heart-wrenching experience, and my heart goes out to him,” Deputy Rodney C. Chinnick said Friday.

“It’s not that we didn’t take him seriously,” Chinnick said. “We don’t take every missing person report on adults. … If we did, we’d be doing nothing but going after missing person reports.”
Adults are entitled to privacy if they decide to do something out of the ordinary, and Chinnick said Rider’s initial missing person report did not contain either of the two elements that would trigger an immediate search: evidence of foul play or unusual vulnerability such as age, mental condition or lack of critical medications.
“Not showing up at home is not illegal,” he said.

Here is the dilemma, privacy versus harassment, or government surveillance. What does it legally take to get a cell phone location? Sometimes the law trails modern technology.

Just this year I upgraded my mobile phone to one that is E911 capable. That means I have a GPS chip that allows me to be tracked if I call 911 (112 for the EU). But in the other direction, the cell phone company can tell what tower you are nearest, and a general direction from the tower (yes I know there is more to it than this). I do not know how long the cell phone companies keep records on the last ping from a cell phone to their system. In this case the phone still had power after 8 days so they were able to find her once they FINALLY started looking. My old phone would have died after 2 days. Modern technology is useful only if it can be use in a timely manner, but likewise it shouldn’t be a mechanism for harassment (this could have been a marital spat), therefore the dilemma.

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Richard Gardner
About Richard Gardner
Richard Gardner is a “retired” Navy Submarine Officer with military policy, arms control, and budgeting experience. He contributed over 100 pieces to OTB between January 2004 and August 2008, covering special events. He has a BS in Engineering from the University of California, Irvine.


  1. John Burgess says:

    It is a dilemma, but I think you’ve noted the solution: a third-party cut-out. Now we only have to figure out how to pay for that.

    Perhaps it could be an added duty for those organizations set up to protect battered spouses and/or children. Maybe adding a mil to the cost of cell-phone calls would do it.

  2. Bithead says:

    Look, let’s not underestimate the power of the lawsuit, here… or, at the least, fear of the lawsuit. My guess is there’s more of that involved here than anyone is willing to publicly aver, who is even remotely associated with the process.

  3. Grewgills says:

    Who would you sue and exactly why would you sue?

  4. Tracy says:

    Friends of mine have been through a similar situation, though thank goodness it didn’t take as long to get a result.

    My best friend’s father went hunting one morning and didn’t come home. His wife waited, because maybe he had to track something – it happens. But after a while it became apparent that something must be wrong – if he was having that much trouble, he would have come home and enlisted the help of his sons or friends. So she called the police.

    She was subjected to hours of, “Do you have problems at home?” “Does he drink?” “Does he often leave home without telling you?” “Did you have a fight recently?”

    When they finally went out and looked, they found that he had fallen out of his tree stand. He’d lost a lot of blood and suffered a quite a bit damage to the side he’d landed on. I’m told that the only reason he’d lived long enough to be found was because it was a cold day, and his systems had slowed down. Once he recovered, he had to have surgeries to replace his hip and repair one side of his face.

    On one hand, I see the need to respect someone’s privacy. But at the same time I think we need to acknowledge that someone that close to a person is likely to know when something’s out of the ordinary and when they should start to worry. I agree, if there’s a problem with forcing someone to go home, at least make contact with the person to ensure that they’re ok, then let them go on their way. At least then you don’t have to worry about people dying waiting for the help that should be coming but isn’t.