The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has confirmed the agency has an ongoing business relationship with a Florida company that manufactures surveillance devices and provides training services on their use.
The Florida-based Harris Corporation is known for selling mobile phone tracking devices known as a “Stingray” to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. A Stingray acts as a false mobile phone tower, luring cellphones to connect to it in order to provide law enforcement agents with certain information, including location and call data.
Stingrays have been at the center of controversy for years due to their secretive use by agencies. An investigation by Sacramento television station KXTV found several police departments throughout California had received the devices from Harris, including agencies in Los Angeles, Oakland and San Jose.
Documents provided to KXTV by the San Jose Police Department said the agency reached out to officials at other California police departments for advice on purchasing technology from Harris. The Sacramento County Sheriff Department was listed as one agency San Jose police officials consulted with, suggesting that the agency had acquired technology supplied by Harris.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office supplied KXTV with a receipt for an antenna booster manufactured by Harris for use with its surveillance devices. But KXTV reporter Thom Jensen said officials told them the agency “did not own or use Stingrays” and had “no records responsive” to their request.
But the department appears to have contradicted itself in response to an open records request filed by TheBlot Magazine in June.
That request sought “any and all records related to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s purchase and/or use of electronic surveillance equipment manufactured by Harris.” The request specifically asked for records related to the Stingray and three other known devices manufactured by Harris.
On Wednesday, the agency said documents were located that were “responsive to the request,” but were withheld pursuant to a variety of state and federal laws — among them, laws that deal with the manufacturing and trade of military weapons.
Similar citations were made in KXTV’s original request for records. A legal expert told the station that the department’s justifications for withholding records were “invalid,” and said the laws that applied to military weapons “don’t apply to Stingrays.”
The receipt furnished to KXTV in March is presumed to be among the documents that were withheld under TheBlot’s request. It is unclear why the department felt the receipt was not applicable.
Law enforcement agencies have attempted to keep their use of Stingray devices hidden from the public for years. The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently injected itself in a Florida case by asking a judge not to unseal testimony that would have shed light on how officers used the device before obtaining a warrant.
The judge refused, and the testimony was published in the public record last month. According to the testimony, officers used a portable Stingray device to locate a stolen cellphone inside the residence of James L. Thomas, who was tried and convicted on charges of sexual battery and petty theft.
Thomas’ conviction was overturned after police acknowledged they failed to obtain a search warrant prior to using the Stingray device. Police said they did not obtain a search warrant because a non-disclosure agreement signed between the agency and Harris precluded them from doing so.