The Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has slapped the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department with a lawsuit for failing to turn over documents related to the law enforcement agency’s acquisition and use of a controversial cellphone surveillance device.
The sheriff’s department’s use of the device — called a StingRay — was first reported by local television station KXTV last March. The story was based on a handful of documents obtained under a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request.
A StingRay acts as a fake cellphone tower that, when deployed, forces all phones within a given radius to connect to it instead of a legitimate communications tower. The suitcase-sized device allows law enforcement to gather information from cellphones — including call, text and geolocation data — during criminal investigations.
The devices are often obtained in California with federal grant money earmarked for counter-terrorism initiatives. But documents obtained by KXTV revealed most law enforcement agencies are using the devices in criminal investigations with no ties to terrorism. Worse, some agencies are keeping their use of the devices from courts and defense attorneys due to a non-disclosure agreement between police and the Florida-based Harris Corporation, the manufacturer of the device.
Shortly after KXTV’s story, the ACLU filed a similar open records request with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department for information about their acquisition and use of StingRays. TheBlot Magazine filed a similar request in June. According to the ACLU, the Sheriff’s department provided a handful of redacted documents, but did not completely fulfill its obligation under the CPRA.
“The Sheriff’s Department cannot demonstrate that any record subject to the (ACLU’s) request…is exempt under express provisions of the CPRA or any other authority,” staff attorneys for the ACLU say in the suit.
The ACLU said it filed its CPRA request in late May and last heard from the agency in mid-July. TheBlot filed a similar request with the sheriff’s department in June. Despite giving redacted documents to the ACLU and KXTV, the agency has refused to give any documents to TheBlot and has stopped returning e-mails (the department briefly blocked this journalist from following its public-facing Twitter profile where the agency regularly interacts with citizens and releases vital public safety information).
StingRays are still shrouded in a cloud of secrecy — mostly imposed by federal investigators who insist local and state law enforcement agencies keep their use of the devices a secret from the public — but recent efforts by news organizations and civil liberties groups to partially lift the veil on the devices have proven somewhat successful.
Last year, the ACLU emerged victorious in a Florida court case that saw the release of hundreds of never-before-seen documents related to the Tallahassee Police Department’s use of the device. For the first time, the public learned that law enforcement often concealed its use of the devices from courts due to a non-disclosure agreement imposed by both the Harris Corporation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Earlier this week, a judge ruled in favor of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) by demanding the Erie County Sheriff’s Department turn over StingRay-related documents pursuant to an open records request that the agency had earlier denied. The judge ordered the agency to turn over documents related to its acquisition and use of StingRay devices, data retention policies and information about specific cases in which the spy gear was used to apprehend individuals.