U.S. Marshals Seize Local Cops’ Cell Phone Tracking Files in Extraordinary Attempt to Keep Information From Public

A run-of-the-mill public records request about cell phone surveillance submitted to a local police department in Florida has unearthed blatant violations of open government laws, including an incredible seizure of state records by the U.S. Marshals Service, which is part of the Justice Department. Today the ACLU and the ACLU of Florida filed an emergency motion in state court to preserve the public’s right of access to government records.

Over the past several months, the ACLU has filed dozens of public records requests with Florida law enforcement agencies seeking information about their use of controversial cell phone tracking devices known as “stingrays.” (The devices are also known as “cell site simulators” or “IMSI catchers.”) Stingrays track phones by mimicking service providers’ cell towers and sending out powerful signals that trick nearby phones — including phones of countless bystanders — into sending their locations and identifying information.

The Florida agencies’ responses to our requests have varied widely, with some stonewalling and others releasing records. The most recent request went to the Sarasota Police Department, and the fallout from that request has raised red flag after red flag.

RED FLAG #1: The Sarasota Police initially told us that they had responsive records, including applications filed by and orders issued to a local detective under the state “trap and trace” statute that he had relied on for authorization to conduct stingray surveillance. That raised the first red flag, since trap and trace orders are typically used to gather limited information about the phone numbers of incoming calls, not to track cell phones inside private spaces or conduct dragnet surveillance. And, such orders require a very low legal standard. As one federal magistrate judge has held, police should be permitted to use stingrays only after obtaining a probable cause warrant, if at all.

RED FLAG #2: The Sarasota Police set up an appointment for us to inspect the applications and orders, as required by Florida law. But a few hours before that appointment, an assistant city attorney sent an email cancelling the meeting on the basis that the U.S. Marshals Service was claiming the records as their own and instructing the local cops not to release them. Their explanation: the Marshals Service had deputized the local officer, and therefore the records were actually the property of the federal government.

We emphatically disagree, since the Sarasota detective created the applications, brought them to court, and retained the applications and orders in his files. Merely giving him a second title (“Special Deputy U.S. Marshal”) does not change these facts. But regardless, once the Sarasota Police Department received our records request, state law required them to hold onto the records for at least 30 days, to give us an opportunity to go to court and seek an order for release of the documents.

Instead of complying with that clear legal obligation, the local police allowed the records to disappear by letting the U.S. Marshals drive down from their office in Tampa, seize the physical files, and move them to an unknown location. We’ve seen our fair share of federal government attempts to keep records about stingrays secret, but we’ve never seen an actual physical raid on state records in order to conceal them from public view.

RED FLAG #3: Realizing we weren’t going to get hold of the Sarasota Police Department’s copies of the applications and orders anytime soon, we asked the county court if we could obtain copies from its files. Incredibly, the court said it had no copies. The court doesn’t even have docket entries indicating that applications were filed or orders issued. Apparently, the local detective came to court with a single paper copy of the application and proposed order, and then walked out with the same papers once signed by a judge.

Court rules — and the First Amendment — require judges to retain copies of judicial records and to make them available to the public, but the court (and the detective) completely flouted those requirements here.

The ACLU’s emergency motion seeks a temporary injunction preventing the Sarasota Police Department from transferring any more files to the U.S. Marshals, as well as a determination that the police violated state law by sending the stingray applications and orders to the Marshals Service in the first place and an order requiring the police to produce the records.

When the government obtains court authorization to use invasive surveillance equipment, the public should not be kept in the dark. We have open records laws for a reason, but they mean nothing if the government can violate their clear commands at its whim.

Add a comment (8)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

Now you know What I've been dealing with for over 14 years, starting in Manatee County (next to Sarasota Co.) canceling police reports, re-writing police reports, Enter the DOJ-FBI, Use of Domestic Violence Court by a Federal Undercover Informant (Christopher M. Moore, burnt by his own misconduct) Former Sherriff Charles Wells, Former US Attorney Robert O'neal, Tampering with FOIA request 2010-008393ES, Elkins v FAA, 8:12-CV-2009, FOIA action US District Court, Tampa, Elkins v FAA, 1:14-CV-00476, FOIA action, US District Court, District of Columbia. South Florida, the most corrupt state in America, it's courts including the 11th Circuit in Atlanta!!!!!!!

Anonymous

Classic. Seems like everyone in a position of power - from the president on down - can do whatever they way, break or flout whatever law they want, for whatever secret reason they have.

I remember an America not too long ago that actually had a rule of law...

Anonymous

I would hope that you understand that NO Local or State Law Enforcement Agency is allowed to operate a StingRay Device in the United States, as it is a Federal Felony to operate such a device, under their (local & State LEOs) FCC Part90 Radio License, as they have NO Frequency Allocation in the Cellular or PCS Radio Bands. It is a Federal Felony to operate an UnLicensed RF Emitter, in the USA. Any information gathered using such an UnLicensed Device would be "Fruit of the Poisonous Tree, as well..... The above only applies to local and State .Gov entities, and NOT Federal Entities, as they are NOT covered by FCC Licenses, but get their Radio Operating Authority thru the Office of Science & Technology, in the WhiteHouse.... So if you can Document that it was a local or State .Gov outfit that was operating the device, then you are Home free, in ANY Federal District Court. Just Say'en.... a reTIRED FCC Resident Field Agent....

Anonymous

Cry moar

Anonymous

"We have open records laws for a reason, but they mean nothing if the government can violate their clear commands at its whim."

Clearly, that is exactly what's going on. Welcome to the uber-state of the Federal Government.

Anonymous

I read & read over and over about the same thing about government is spying cops r lying judges believe liars in court and too be honest EVEN if u want to proof to THE PEOPLE innocent victims tax payers that corruption is happening THT is nothing new we all no that. All the effort to prove how government is CAN SOmEOnE please put effort in how can we people can have a cop, judge, DA, public defender arrested and charged and pay fine AS fast as I or anyone that gets arrested. My point as fast as A officer can write a lie on report or lie to take me to jail . I want to no WHY IN THE HELL DO I Have to go thru a process of a trial & to file complaint & then to higher person then appeals if loose another year of that fight to say I'm fuking innocent. Crying out loud I went to jail for no reason an charged with a coke drinking straw yes people open ur eyes it worst than it is it happen I plead to a charge that is not illegal to have short or long straw no test of drugs no residue of any kind coke state is in every resturant so please attorney open ur eyes te law is the law it's not illegal. Attorneys sto being scared to fight cases take cases for free when u no a case is winnable and help people win n get what's owed to us for dealing with corruption. I have documentation by a officer a too much force was used to beat my husband while handcuffed 6staples to the chin hospital dr stated this is not a fall from falling its use of too much force. Still no help basically let cops get away again. Attorney u went to school to fight didn't say have lunch with DA n I scratch ur Bak n u scratch ur. Take cases n win them stop the corruption not join them. Take my case n any money I win i will donate or help a new organization that will fight for real cases. 10 Burbank ca officers filed complaint about how they were called the N or discriminated and they awarded millions of dollers REaLLY!!!!! Cops cryin n get paid we get falsely accused illegals searches and wht happens to us people we r judged, treated unfairly, cops Harrass beat up lie and we don't get a Fukin dime. I have a document from court that city clerk that sit next to judge to worst person in every court room r corrupt my bail bonds papers were altered n whited out n re written to make it look like I had 2 charges I have proof n clerk still sittin there breakin the law ruining lives for wht couple dollars for courts n city to make so cops can drive around new fast cars n break More laws I Have pictures of officers talkin on cell phone while driving that no text law goes for cops to

Vida

ATTENTiON Good new good news today!!!! and everyday. Parents and kids no need to worry about how u will pay to go to law school to become a attorney. Yes it's true parenst u dont have to spend any money for college ur kid can still become a attoney . No studyin no homework. HEREs how kids go to ur local court house or any court house and apply for a attorney job it's that easy U wANT tO kNoW why cuz these days attorneys n public defender don't need to know the codes n laws ALL THEY NEED to no & bome friends witn is the DA or city attorney all u have to say Is let me when this case cuz i let u win the last case .peolpe there is no more penal codes n guilty or innocent doesn't matter anymore or at the end of the case it boils down to who's days Is it to win and that will be discussed over lunch or during playing golf. That's HOw the new penal law codes works n more laws are broken by the very same people who suppose to protect n serve COPs PIGs.

Vida

ATTENTiON Good new good news today!!!! and everyday. Parents and kids no need to worry about how u will pay to go to law school to become a attorney. Yes it's true parenst u dont have to spend any money for college ur kid can still become a attoney . No studyin no homework. HEREs how kids go to ur local court house or any court house and apply for a attorney job it's that easy U wANT tO kNoW why cuz these days attorneys n public defender don't need to know the codes n laws ALL THEY NEED to no & bome friends witn is the DA or city attorney all u have to say Is let me when this case cuz i let u win the last case .peolpe there is no more penal codes n guilty or innocent doesn't matter anymore or at the end of the case it boils down to who's days Is it to win and that will be discussed over lunch or during playing golf. That's HOw the new penal law codes works n more laws are broken by the very same people who suppose to protect n serve COPs PIGs.

Sign Up for Breaking News