The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has admitted it possesses and uses a controversial cellphone surveillance tool currently at the center of several legal debates across the country.
On Thursday, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones acknowledged the agency currently possess a “cell site simulator…used to locate a person’s known cellular device.”
The acknowledgement comes months after an investigative report filed by Sacramento television station KXTV that revealed several law enforcement agencies throughout California had purchased or possessed a cellphone surveillance tool called a “Stingray.”
When used, a Stingray acts as a fake cellphone tower, forcing all cellphones within a certain radius to connect to it instead of a legitimate tower, then passing along phone metadata to law enforcement officials for the purpose of tracking and locating a device, which in turn can lead police to a criminal suspect.
Many law enforcement agencies provided KXTV with documentation regarding their purchases of the device from Florida-based Harris Corporation. KXTV also obtained documents showing some departments were using the device in routine criminal investigations, even though they had been acquired through Department of Homeland Security grants earmarked for combatting terrorism.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department initially refused to provide KXTV with any documentation regarding its possession or use of a Stingray beyond one invoice from Harris for the purchase of an amplifier that is used in conjunction with the device. The station was told that records related to its request were located, but were exempt under various state and federal statutes.
A similar request for records filed by TheBlot Magazine in June was rejected by the department under various exemptions dealing with homeland security, police tactics and military weapons. For reasons unknown, the department failed to supply TheBlot with the Harris invoice it had supplied to KXTV months ago.
On Thursday, Jones said a confidentiality agreement between the department and the federal government initially precluded him from responding to KXTV’s request for documents. However, the agency recently provided KXTV with several redacted invoices from Harris that appear to show the department’s purchase of a Stingray, related software and training on the device.
A KXTV employee told TheBlot that the station had planned to file a follow-up report using the newly-released documents when the sheriff published his statement “out of the blue” on Thursday.
In the statement, the sheriff charged “a local news source” with “repeatedly and knowingly disseminate false information” about the agency’s use of a cell site simulator, though he did not say what information in KXTV’s reports were incorrect. The relationship between the agency and the station has been rocky since the initial report on Stingrays aired in March. According to several employees who spoke on condition of anonymity, the sheriff’s department stopped distributing press releases and information about public events to KXTV staffers for a few days after the station published its first story on the spy device.
Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Sgt. Lisa Bowman did not return a request for comment. News director Jerome Parra referred TheBlot to the station’s Facebook page where KXTV accused the sheriff’s department of releasing its statement on Thursday to every media outlet in town except theirs. During a local newscast, the station said it stood by its reporting on Stingrays and asked the sheriff to contact them with his concerns.
Before the sheriff’s acknowledgement, KXTV reporter Thom Jensen confronted Jones at a public event to ask questions about the department’s use of the surveillance device. Jones refused to answer Jensen’s questions, instead blasting the station for its “excessive badgering on the issue” before walking away from the reporter.
But the sheriff put on a different face for the public on Thursday, saying on Facebook he was committed to “transparency” about the issue. According to Jones, the department uses the device “infrequently (and) in special cases,” including missing persons investigations and to locate a person suspected of committing a felony.
Jones said the device is used “pursuant to and in full compliance with the law.” A recent KXTV report called this into question after a search through public records found zero instances of the sheriff’s department requesting a court order, such as a warrant, to use the device. The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office and several Sacramento judges also told the station they had not seen any requests from the agency for court orders regarding the use of a Stingray.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department may have long felt the need to keep its possession of a cellphone spy tool under wraps given the deep ramifications once an agency’s use of such a device is made public. Several recent court cases have raise legal questions about the collusion between local and federal agencies with regard to the devices as well as the secretive, often warrantless, use of Stingrays in criminal cases.
In June, a Florida court rejected the argument that a confidentiality agreement between the Tallahassee Police Department and Harris allowed the department to use a Stingray without first obtaining a warrant. Testimony recorded in court documents later obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union found that the department had used a Stingray “over 200 times” within a three-year period to locate criminal suspects in routine investigations.
The department’s attempt to cover up its use of a Stingray at the behest of federal authorities resulted in a judge tossing out the conviction of the sexual assault suspect and ordering a new trial.
The case was just one example out of hundreds, if not thousands, of times police departments across the country have used the devices. Though agencies often say that the devices are reserved for serious criminal offenses and homeland security investigations, at least one police department has said on the record that it is not precluded by any law or agreement with regard to how or when it can use a Stingray.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.