ACLU: Anaheim Police Snooping on Public's Cell Phones

ACLU: Anaheim Police Snooping on Public's Cell Phones

The Anaheim Police Department is trying to brand itself as transparent in the wake of the city's July 2012 riots. Officers are now outfitted with digital audio recorders and body cameras. Policy manuals are posted online for all to see. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California is having a hell of a time trying to get the department to cough up documents on StingRay cell phone surveillance devices.

The civil liberties group filed a lawsuit yesterday demanding the police turnover public records they requested way back last summer to no avail.

Not familiar with the controversial device in question?

"[StingRays] allow law enforcement to indiscriminately track the cell phones of everyone who happens to be withing the device's significant range, including suspects and bystanders," the lawsuit reads. They do so by mimicking wireless towers that connect with phones giving access to their location, data and content. (And you thought apps were sketchy!)

Concerned with "grave civil liberties consequences," the ACLU did what us reporters do and filed a public records request in July. They sought documents on StingRay policies, grants written to purchase the devices, and unsealed warrants dating back to 2008 showing its use.

"We wanted to conduct a survey of law enforcement departments locally," says ACLU Staff Attorney Jessica Price. "We sent our requests to about eleven departments in Southern California, including Anaheim."

Other departments have been more forthcoming by turning over stacks of paperwork. Riverside police stated they don't have the devices while the Orange County Sheriff's Department noted that they did a price quote. The Los Angeles and San Bernardino Sheriff's Department are both confirmed as having them. The ACLU is also suing the Sacramento Sheriff's Department, but at least they handed over five redacted docs.

The Anaheim City Attorney's office, on the other hand, responded to the ACLU by stating it didn't "reasonably describe or identify" the sought after records--a common shine-off despite their admissions that responsive records existed. Price followed up with a letter seeking to clarify the request only to have the department double down saying any such records are protected by "trade secret privilege."

The ACLU is challenging that notion in court asking a judge compel the police to give up the public record goods.

"As far we know, the device that's sold throughout department agencies has its capacity to get communication information disabled, but with Anaheim we're just not sure because they're refusing to produce any information," Price says.

"Anaheim is the only one who refused to provided any records at all."

Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2

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