Judge slams Tacoma for not releasing stingray records

A judge in Washington state has excoriated the Tacoma Police Department for withholding public records pertaining to its use of cell-site simulators, also known as stingrays.

Back in 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state sued the TPD on behalf of four community leaders, arguing that the department has not adequately responded to their public records requests concerning the use of stingrays, which included asking for a blank form authorizing its use.

“The [Public Records Act] establishes a positive duty to disclose public records unless they fall within specific exemptions,” Judge G. Helen Whitener wrote in her Monday opinion.

“This mandates that the City, upon receiving a request for documents, must first do an adequate search and then must produce the documents requested if there is not an exemption. The PRA does not require the City to analyze the reasons why the document is requested or to determine the relevance of the documents requested even if they are blank forms. The blank form taken in context of the other forms may have meaning to the requestor, and it is not for the City to analyze its relevance. To adopt the City’s interpretation of the PRA would defeat the broad mandate of the PRA to allow access to public records not covered by and exemption.”

The lawsuit was filed nine months after Washington imposed a new warrant requirement for stingray use in the state and about 15 months after local Pierce County judges imposed stricter guidelines for their use.

As Ars has reported for years, stingrays are in use by both local and federal law enforcement agencies nationwide. The devices determine a target phone’s location by spoofing or simulating a cell tower. Mobile phones in range of the stingray then connect to it and exchange data with the device as they would with a real cell tower.

Once deployed, stingrays intercept data from the target phone along with information from other phones within the vicinity—up to and including full calls and text messages. At times, police have falsely claimed that information gathered from a stingray has instead come from a confidential informant.

“This is a win for everyone in Washington who believes police must be accountable to the people they serve,” said Elder Toney Montgomery, one of the Plaintiffs in the suit, as quoted in a statement released by the ACLU of Washington. “For people in communities of color especially, police surveillance is a critical issue—our communities have long been disproportionately targeted for surveillance.”

Judge Whitener ordered that the city must pay over $182,000 for “violations” of the state’s PRA and over $109,000 in attorneys’ fees.

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