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Judge orders Tacoma to pay fines, attorney fees over stingray records

by Dale Chappell

A Pierce County judge hit the City of Tacoma, Washington, with nearly $300,000 in fines and fees for violating the state’s Public Records Act (“PRA”), when it failed to turn over records on its use of stingray devices.

The court said the city deliberately withheld documents that it should have disclosed under the PRA, which mandates that the city “must first do an adequate search and then produce the documents requested if there is not an exemption.” The PRA does not require the city to analyze why records are requested or to determine their relevance, the court said.

The city’s defense that the documents were “easily obtainable by any member of the public by doing a simple Google search,” and that most of the documents were published in the local paper anyway was “troubling in many regards,” the court said. “At a minimum, the city is required to inform the requestor of where it has placed the requested documents.”

A stingray device is used to determine a target cellphone’s location by spoofing a real cellphone tower with a strong signal forcing all phones in the area to connect to it. Users then make calls and send data as usual, never knowing that law enforcement is watching everything they do. Police have falsely claimed that information they received from stingrays came from confidential informants. The state in 2015 passed a law that law enforcement must obtain a warrant to use a stingray device.

The court’s decision is important, because “people in communities of color ... have long been disproportionately targeted for surveillance,” one of the plaintiffs said about the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit on their behalf. The win also is important for privacy advocates, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision requiring warrants for law enforcement use of cell site location information from cellphone providers.

“This case isn’t about money,” ACLU staff attorney John Midgley said. “The court found that transparency was important and accountability was important.” The judge said the large penalty was “necessary to deter future conduct” in violation of the PRA. 


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