Crime - Sacto 911

Public defender’s officials seek info from ‘Stingray’ surveillance by Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department

Sacramento County public defender’s officials want a judge to order the county’s district attorney to turn over the names of clients whose cellphones they allege were secretly tracked with a high-tech and controversial surveillance tool that allowed law enforcement to collect location data from investigative targets.

Calling the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s use of Stingray devices “secret, intrusive and warrantless,” public defender’s officials in a motion filed Thursday in Sacramento Superior Court say they may have clients who have been “unlawfully arrested and locked away as a result of Stingray use.” They add in the motion that “potentially large numbers of people in the Sacramento community” were subject to scrutiny.

Sacramento County district attorney’s officials Friday said they had received the motion and will review and respond to the filing. The motion seeks an Oct. 6 hearing.

The device’s technology mimics a cellular network’s cell tower, tricking a cellphone and other mobile devices into connecting to it. The phones identify themselves as they would when they register with actual cell towers that mobile devices use to transmit data. The cellphones can then be identified and text messages and outgoing calls can be intercepted without the users’ knowledge.

In a separate filing on Thursday, the Public Defender’s Office says the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has operated Stingray devices since 2006 “without judicial oversight or approval.” In that filing, the Public Defender’s Office petitioned Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones to inform the county District Attorney’s Office in writing any time it uses a Stingray.

“Since 2006, our office has handled over 200,000 cases. We have no idea if Stingray was used in these cases,” said Steven Garrett, a supervising assistant public defender and one of the motion’s filers, on Friday. “We want (the district attorney) to ask if particular clients in these cases have had Stingrays used.”

Sheriff Jones has defended his department’s use of the Stingray in the past, saying it is used to locate a person’s known cellular device, does not collect voice, text or data, and is used infrequently to locate felony suspects, missing persons and kidnapping victims.

The Sheriff’s Department’s use of Stingray technology has come under scrutiny before. The Public Defender’s Office in 2014 sought records relating to the possible use of Stingray in the surveillance of more than 190 of the office’s clients. In their response, sheriff’s officials said there were “no responsive documents” to the records request.

The department was sued in March by the American Civil Liberties Union over the department’s refusal to release documents related to its use of Stingray technology. In a statement at the time, Jones said his office responded to the ACLU’s records request and said the department had handed over “many documents.”

In July, the Public Defender’s Office submitted another records request citing a sheriff’s grant request to upgrade its wireless tracking technology that stated the department “assisted more than 26 local, state and federal agencies with more than 500 criminal investigations and apprehensions of violent offenders.” The grant request did not identify Stingray as the technology.

In August, sheriff’s officials again said there were “no responsive documents” to the records request.

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith