Stingray Concession Not Enough for Defenders

SACRAMENTO (CN) – Nine years after it began tracking private citizens’ cellphone calls and text messages without warrants, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday it will no longer do so without a court order.
     Sheriff Scott Jones announced the new policy on Stingray technology days after the Sacramento County Public Defender’s Office asked a state judge to order the county’s district attorney to release the names of people targeted by the surveillance technology.
     In a Sept. 10 Superior Court complaint on behalf of six clients, the Public Defender’s Office called the county’s use of the Stingray tool “secretive,” and said it hurt public trust in law enforcement.
     “The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office has never approved of or been informed of when the sheriff’s office chooses to use a Stingray device or has used a Stingray device,” according to the complaint.
     Stingray technology mimics cellphone towers and intercepts cellphone data from devices being used nearby to track the location and information of cellphone users. Sacramento County has used the technology since 2006 without warrants or court orders.
     The Public Defender’s Office, which has handled more than 200,000 cases since 2006, says it has no idea whether its clients were targeted by the invasive Stingray tool. It claims the Sheriff’s Department refused to respond to multiple Public Records Act requests asking whether approximately 190 clients were tracked with the surveillance device.
     Sacramento County’s new Stingray policy comes two weeks after the U.S. Justice Department rolled out a new policy under which federal law enforcement agents will be required to obtain warrants and inform judges when and how they track the cellphones of suspects.
     Sheriff Jones said Tuesday that the data collected will be destroyed after each use, and that the FBI required his department to conceal its use of the invasive technology until last year.
     Jones said the new policy was created to “maintain public trust” and will be used to target dangerous suspects, missing people and help in emergencies.
     “The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is the first state or local law enforcement agency in the country to develop such a policy and provide it publicly for its use,” Jones said.
     According to data from the American Civil Liberties Union , 54 agencies in 21 states are known to use Stingrays.
     The ACLU of Northern California called the county’s new policy “a step in the right direction” but criticized it for requiring only a court order, not a specific warrant.
     “The policy should require the sheriff to obtain warrants, in other words, to demonstrate to a court probable cause to believe that a suspect has engaged in criminal wrongdoing,” said Linda Lye, staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “Obtaining some unspecified ‘judicial authorization’ based on weak information isn’t enough.”
     The ACLU filed its own lawsuit against the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department in March, asking a state judge to order the department to reveal how it funds and operates the Stingray technology. The Department of Justice settled with the ACLU in August and agreed to release more than 200 documents via a Freedom of Information Act request.
     After Jones’ announcement, the Public Defender’s Office said it’s not satisfied with the new policy and that it will still pursue its motion to retrieve the names of clients targeted by Stingray investigations.
     “It appears that in the past the sheriff has used this device hundreds of times without approval of the district attorney or the courts,” the Public Defender’s Office said in a statement. “The public defender believes that citizens in our community have a right to know if, prior to this new policy, their privacy rights were violated.”

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