A police department in Florida failed to tell judges about its use of a cell phone tracking tool “because the department got the device on loan and promised the manufacturer to keep it all under wraps,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a blog post today.
The device was likely a “Stingray,” which is made by the Florida-based Harris Corporation. Stingrays impersonate cell phone towers in order to compel phones to “reveal their precise locations and information about all of the calls and text messages they send and receive,” the ACLU noted. “When in use, stingrays sweep up information about innocent people and criminal suspects alike.”The tracking technology was used by the Tallahassee Police Department in September 2008 to locate a man accused of r**e and the theft of a purse, which contained the alleged victim’s cell phone.
The man, James L. Thomas, was convicted of sexual battery and theft, but he filed an appeal “contending that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and article I, section 12 of the Florida Constitution, was introduced against him at trial,” according to a court ruling in November 2013 that reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial.
Police “did not want to obtain a search warrant because they did not want to reveal information about the technology they used to track the cell phone signal,” the District Court of Appeal ruling said. “The prosecutor told the court that a law enforcement officer ‘would tell you that there is a nondisclosure agreement that they’ve agreed with the company.'”