U.S. Marshals seized copies of public records and court documents authorizing police use of “stingray” devices in violation of Florida public records law; Lawsuit filed in state court seeks to prevent Sarasota Police from transferring any more files to the U.S. Marshals and make public the use of the cell phone trackers

CONTACT:  ACLU of Florida Media Office, media@aclufl.org, (786) 363-2737

SARASOTA, FL - Today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida has filed an emergency motion in Florida court in response to efforts by the Sarasota Police Department to violate Florida public records law in order to maintain a secret program of using cell phone tracking devices in conjunction with the U.S. Marshals Service.

As part of an investigation into law enforcement’s use of cell phone tracking devices known as “stingrays,” the ACLU of Florida had filed public records requests with dozens of Florida law enforcement agencies seeking information about their use of the controversial devices. In response to one request, the Sarasota Police Department initially responded that they had responsive records, including judicial applications and orders apparently authorizing stingray use, and offered to allow a representative from the ACLU of Florida’s Sarasota Chapter to inspect the documents.

A few hours before the scheduled appointment, however, an assistant city attorney canceled the meeting after U.S. Marshals Service claimed the records as their own and instructing the Sarasota Police not to release them. The U.S. Marshals Service claims it deputized the Sarasota Police officer who had applied for the stingray orders and that the records related to the applications and orders – including the state court’s copies – were the property of the federal government and not subject to Florida public records law.

“That police use stingray devises is nothing new, but that the police would go to these lengths to evade a public discussion on how and when they use them is alarming,” said Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida.   “What the police do in the public’s name is the public’s concern. People have a right to know about police’s use of stingray devices—when and how they use them to monitor communications and the whereabouts of innocent people in the vicinity.  Only through this open discussion can we set the proper limits of this technology.”

The U.S. Marshall Service apparently seized all the original and copies of the Sarasota Police’s applications and the court orders. The ACLU learned that the Sarasota Police customarily does not submit copies of stingray applications and proposed orders for the use of the devices to the court.

“Florida’s Public Records Act allows citizens to discover what their government is up to,” said Andrea Flynn Mogensen, Vice Chair of the ACLU of Florida’s Sarasota Chapter and a cooperating attorney on the ACLU’s complaint. “When public records are wrongfully withheld by allowing them to be transferred to a federal agency, the law is violated. When our government is pervasively monitoring us with new technology, we deserve answers, not hidden records.”

The ACLU of Florida today filed an emergency motion requesting the state court issue an order preventing the Sarasota Police from transferring any more files to the U.S. Marshals, as well as a determination that the police violated state public records law.

“When the government obtains court authorization to use invasive surveillance equipment, the public should not be kept in the dark,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, Staff Attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, who has been spearheading the ACLU’s investigations into the use of stingrays. “We have open records laws for a reason, but they mean nothing if the government can violate their clear commands at its whim.”

Also known as “cell site simulators,” stingrays impersonate cell phone towers, prompting phones within range to reveal their precise locations and information about all of the calls and text messages they send and receive. When in use, stingrays sweep up information about innocent people and criminal suspects alike. In a 2012 case in Texas, a judge stated that police should only be permitted to use stingrays after obtaining a probable cause warrant, if at all.

The complaint filed today is available here: http://aclufl.org/resources/aclu-of-florida-v-sarasota-complaint/

More information about the ACLU’s investigations into Florida law enforcement agencies’ use of stingray devices is available here: https://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security-technology-and-liberty/police-hide-use-cell-phone-tracker-courts-because

Further description of today’s emergency filing by the ACLU is here: https://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security-technology-and-liberty/us-marshals-seize-local-cops-cell-phone-tracking-files

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