MIAMI, Florida – A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court ruling that prevented the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida from obtaining records regarding the use of cell phone tracker technology by the Sarasota Police Department.
In 2014, the ACLU of Florida requested public records regarding the Sarasota Police’s use of “Stingray” cell phone trackers. Hours before the ACLU was scheduled to review the documents, the police reversed their decision, claiming the detective who submitted the applications for the use of Stingrays did so in his capacity as a cross-sworn deputy U.S. Marshal, and that therefore the records were federal, and therefore exempt from public disclosure under Florida public records laws. The ACLU of Florida filed lawsuit afterward to obtain the city’s records.
In an order issued today, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the district court was wrong for denying the ACLU of Florida’s request to obtain facts supporting its position that the records were city records subject to Florida’s public record law, as the issue of whether the detective was acting in his capacity as a federal marshal remains in dispute.
Responding to today’s ruling, ACLU of Florida staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson stated:
“This is a win both for open government and for citizens who are concerned about pervasive surveillance technology. The public has a right to know how the government is tracking and collecting data on where they are and what they do. In order to protect privacy in an age where nearly everyone carries a cell phone, government must be open about the use of these powerful tools and what rules are in place to prevent abuse. We are grateful to the court for giving us another opportunity to bring the details of the use of Stingrays in Sarasota into the daylight.
ACLU of Florida board vice-president Michael Barfield, a plaintiff in the case, added:
“Today’s ruling is a vindication of the idea that people have a right to know what their government is doing. Having a deputy marshal on staff doesn’t make a law enforcement agency exempt from the public records laws. The police cannot hide information from the public simply because an officer wears two hats when it’s convenient. People in Sarasota deserve to know how these powerful surveillance tools are being used.”
Today’s order from the appeals court sends the matter back to the district court, allowing the ACLU to continue the adversarial discovery process. A copy of the order is available from the 11th Circuit website here: http://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/201615848.pdf
Stingrays, also known as “cell site simulators” or “IMSI catchers,” are invasive cell phone surveillance devices that mimic cell phone towers and send out signals to trick cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and identifying information. When used to track a suspect’s cell phone, they also gather information about the phones of countless bystanders who happen to be nearby.
Nationwide, the ACLU has uncovered evidence that federal and local law enforcement agencies are actively trying to conceal the use of phone tracking technology from public scrutiny. The ACLU is continuing to push for transparency and reform. More information about the ACLU’s challenges to police use of Stingray devices is available here: https://www.aclu.org/issues/privacy-technology/surveillance-technologies/stingray-tracking-devices