The Anoka County Sheriff's Office has a new tool to quickly gather digital evidence at crime scenes.

The office converted an old ambulance — donated by Allina Emergency Medical Services — into the state's first mobile digital forensics lab. The mobile lab allows detectives to glean electronic data from devices at a scene without taking them to a lab for testing.

"You go into a house and they have countless computers, iPads, phones," said Brian Podany, commander of the criminal investigative division for the sheriff's office. "Fifteen years ago if people had a computer, they only had one. Now we go out [to a scene] that's electronic related, we don't necessarily know which device [evidence] is on. There could be 10 computers in the house."

Last week, detectives used the unit to help execute a search warrant. Authorities believed there was digital evidence on the computers at the home. Before it would take several days and a lot of manpower to process these devices, but this time authorities were able to get data immediately.

Digital breadcrumbs

The number of smartphones and other personal devices examined by the sheriff's office has tripled in the past three years, and they have often become the first place investigators look for evidence.

When two Andover girls went missing last fall, Anoka County authorities looked for clues on their iPods and smartphones. The girls were soon found in the basement of a Burnsville man, Casey Lee Chinn. Chinn is now serving an 11-year prison sentence for felony criminal sexual assault and kidnapping.

Electronic evidence also helped prosecutors arrest a Crystal man charged with killing his 10-year-old son in March. The charges against Pierre Collins, 33, focus heavily on cellphone signals that authorities say provide a detailed account of his whereabouts on the day his son Barway disappeared.

No tracking

Refitting the ambulance into a mobile lab cost about $5,000. Inside, officers have different types of equipment to help them on the go: hard drives, high-speed Internet and high-power laptops, Podany said.

The sheriff's office designed the vehicle with no tracking or monitoring capability. Officers cannot listen to calls or go through a device without a search warrant or another legal basis to look at data, Podany said.

The lab will be used in major incidents or during the execution of search warrants, but Podany doesn't expect to use it more than once a week.

The mobile lab was first conceived as a topic for a college thesis paper from one of the county's detectives, but it turned into something more, Podany said.

"This is a great way to improve our services and streamline our services," he said.

Karen Zamora • 612-673-4647

Twitter: @KarenAnelZamora