Tuesday, 11. March 2014
Tallahassee police are in hot water after court testimony revealed that they used cell phone surveillance equipment to track a suspected phone thief without going to a judge for a warrant. Compounding the problem, a subsequent investigation found that the department used the tracking device more than 200 times since 2010, all without seeking a warrant.
The device in question is known as a “stingray,” and it functions by tricking a user’s cell phone into thinking the device is a cell phone tower. Once the cell phone sends a signal to the fake tower, police can track the phone’s movement and intercept both phone calls and text messages.
A judge likely would have approved search warrants in some of the 200 cases, but the Tallahassee Police Department’s decision to keep their tracking information out of the public sphere and the courtroom is raising questions about fourth amendment protections.
How It All Unraveled
The department’s stingray use was first revealed during a rather simple cell phone theft case. An unnamed person reported their cell phone stolen, and without much evidence, police turned to the stingray device to attempt to locate the cell phone. The signal sent them to the house of James L. Thomas, who was promptly arrested. A subsequent search of Thomas’ home uncovered the stolen cell phone.
During court, Thomas’ criminal defense attorney asked police how they discovered that Thomas had the cell phone. The police department said they “did not want to reveal information about the technology they used to track the cell phone,” but the presiding judge demanded they answer the question. After clearing the courtroom and sealing the official record, police informed the court about their method.
A subsequent appeal of the case revealed that this wasn’t the first time authorities in the Sunshine State had used the invasive tracking device. It was uncovered that they had tracked cell phone position and possibly call and text conversations of over 200 people without going through the proper channels.
“This record makes it very clear that (Tallahassee Police Department) were not going to get a search warrant because they had never gotten a search warrant for this technology,” the presiding judge said during the appeals session.
Not surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union has joined in the discussion to decry the surveillance tactic. They believe that when law enforcement casts a large net in hopes of catching a criminal, innocent people get caught up in the mess.
“When police use invasive surveillance equipment to surreptitiously sweep up information about the locations and communications of large numbers of people, court oversight and public debate are essential,” said the ACLU.
The ACLU wants to uncover how rampant stingray use is across the state. On Monday, the union filed a public records submission to almost 30 departments across the state.
Mel Welch comments
Another story of law enforcement using the guise of safety to unfairly and unjustly track the movements of average citizens. Police seem to think they don’t need to follow due process as long as they have a badge. Clearly, many Florida residents have been subjected to 4th amendment violations.