SDPD Used Cell Phone Tracking Technology to Help With 26 Investigations: Docs

Documents are being released as part of a public records lawsuit filed against SDPD and City of San Diego

Stringray surveillance was used to help with 26 police investigations since December 2010, according to documents released as a result of a public records lawsuit against the City of San Diego and the San Diego Police Department.

NBC 7 Investigates reviewed the documents and found 26 different cases between December 2010 to March 2015, where the SDPD used the technology to investigate various crimes.

A “cell phone tracking log” shows, the SDPD robbery division was the heaviest user of the technology. The gang unit and the Special Investigation Unit both used the “stingrays” technology two times, according to the logs.

NBC 7 Investigates first reported that local law enforcement use the technology last year. The Stingray is manufactured by Harris Corporation and is described as a device “capable of tracking the signal of cellular telephones even if the person has disabled GPS capabilities.”

The technology has been around for nearly two decades but SDPD didn’t start using it until late 2010. Documents released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from the media and public interest groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, reveal cities like Baltimore have been using cell site simulators since 2007.

Related: Lawsuit against City of San Diego and the San Diego Police Department results in documents detailing Stingray usage by police to be released. Read the second part of the investigation here.

Attorney Kelly Aviles and her client, the First Amendment Coalition, filed a lawsuit against the SDPD and the City in order to obtain documents detailing how the technology is used locally. FAC agreed not to seek technical information about the device, Aviles said.

According to Gerry Braun, Director of Communications for the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, “The SDPD mishandled the CPRA (request).” In an email, he said, “they had a second chance to get it right, and did. The City Attorney’s Office does not approve or disapprove of the release of documents.”

The documents reveal, the SDPD, has two portable Stingrays and one that mounts on a vehicle. According to the documents released and court filings the technology can be deployed two ways:

· The SDPD may use the cell site simulator with a known cell phone number of someone they are looking for

· The SDPD may follow a suspect around and at each location activate the stingray and capture all cell phone data for all nearby phones allowing them to determine the suspect’s cell phone number by process of elimination.

In an email to NBC 7 Investigates, Matt Awbrey, Deputy Chief of Staff and Chief of Communications for the City of San Diego said, “We support SDPD in the use of legal technology to keep our citizens and city safe.” SDPD did not provide further comment for this story.

Information revealed in the newly released documents, show how the SDPD tracked their use of the technology. Within the “cell phone tracking log,” there are two different types: “target development” and “fugitive hunting.” The latter meaning it was a case involving the SIU (Special Investigations Unit) of the SDPD.

Some of the logs allow the officers to indicate whether it was an “exigent circumstance.” It refers to part of the law which allows, under certain circumstances, for law enforcement to enter a home or business without a search warrant. Or if they have a “knock and announce” warrant, the officers can enter without knocking. According to the documents, it is normally used when people are believed to be in eminent danger, evidence is being destroyed or the suspect is getting away.

Below are some examples of what the log reveals about how the SDPD use Stingrays. To see more details of all entries, click here.

· 5/22/13 Robbery unit, allegation of kidnapping as well, 70th and University area, T-Mobile phone located, probable cause for arrest but no arrest was made. Exigent? Yes.

· 9/5/13 Robbery unit, other: “attempt murder” no information on locating phone, arrest or location, no search warrant indicated.

· 10/1/13 Homicide unit, target was located on 45th Street in San Diego, ten minutes to locate a Sprint cell phone connected to target. No indication of exigent circumstances.

· 11/20/13 Robbery/unit three, unable to locate a AT&T phone in eight various locations in San Diego, El Cajon. Exigent? No.

· 2/10/14 Robbery unit in East San Ysidro found target with a Cricket cell phone, took five minutes to locate the phone, no arrest, no probable cause, no exigent mentioned.

According to the logs, when the SDPD turned the stingray on it took little time to locate the “suspects” phone they were seeking. The logs detail the time ranged from five minutes to three hours to locate a phone. For the ten cases when the phone was located, it took an average of about 55 minutes to pin down the location of the cell phone.

Beginning this year a new law known as the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act requires police agencies to have a judge sign a warrant before they can access nearly any type of digital data. The ACLU, as well as Google, Airbnb, Apple, Facebook all co-sponsored the bill.

NBC 7 Investigates asked the San Diego Superior Court presiding judge’s office to comment on whether or not the judiciary was informed of the use of the Stingrays when they were asked to sign warrants. In a statement, the office said, “the court has procedures in place to comply with the law and in particular the mandates of Penal Code section 1534 concerning electronic search warrants.

The court does not track of what kinds of warrants are issued by judges during regular business hours or after hours by the duty judge.”

City Councilman Todd Gloria is calling for city and county elected officials to “publicly adopt a resolution or ordinance outlining the policy governing use of stingray technology.”

This is one of a series of posts from NBC 7 Investigates highlighting the public’s right of access to information. The stories were published to coordinate with Sunshine Week, an annual campaign bringing attention to federal and local access issues. In California, the public is able to request information from government agencies, offices and officials through the California Public Records Act. For more information on how to request information click here. 

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