Review of "StingRay" documents show CMPD doing more than searching for suspects

CMPD secret phone surveillance

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - New questions are being asked after WBTV News investigated the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department's use of high tech surveillance equipment.

CMPD has been using what is called a "StingRay" since 2006. It is a powerful piece of equipment that mimics a cell phone tower. It tricks all phones in the area into connecting to it, allowing police to track a cellphone users every move.

It's controversial in part because the "StingRay" collects data on phones not connected to any criminal cases and its use has largely been done in secret and without search warrants.

WBTV News, and our news partners at The Charlotte Observer, went to court and got a judge to unseal the court orders which approved the technology's use. Documents show CMPD sought orders more than 500 times in the past five years.

Prosecutors and several defense attorneys told us they didn't know in which cases the "StingRay" had been used and they weren't sure if North Carolina Disclosure Law was followed, which is one of the most stringent in the United States.

North Carolina's Disclosure Law calls for evidence to be turned over to defendants before trial.

CMPD told us in a statement a couple weeks ago that the orders weren't covered under the state's disclosure law. The statement said in part "...our applications and orders do not pertain to the investigation of the offense."

The statement went on to say the orders are "a method to locate the suspect who has a warrant outstanding" and "those orders do not fall within the definition of what is required to be provided to the defendant under the discovery rules."

A search of the court orders from 2103-14 finds a couple dozen that call that statement into question.

WBTV asked Defense Attorney Rob Heroy to look over a few of the documents. "Clearly states it's an ongoing investigation," said Heroy as he glanced over one of the orders.

Heroy says these newly released documents show CMPD was at times doing more than just looking for suspects facing charges.

"The defendant has a right to know how the investigation developed," Heroy said.

Not only did the files show examples where police say the information will "assist in an ongoing investigation," in several drug cases, the applications said police are looking to "potentially identify 'stash' locations for controlled substances and U.S. currency."

An application in a financial fraud case said the application will "allow officers to identify other individuals involved in this conspiracy."

"It can be a problem for some cases that have already been adjudicated there may be people in prison who didn't have discovery provided," Heroy said.

It's not just defense attorneys raising questions. Steve Ward is a retired prosecutor who worked to convict criminals in Mecklenburg County for 20 years.

"Prior to the arrest being made I understand it's still in the investigatory stage," said Ward. "But after the arrest is made they should have made full disclosure."

CMPD, in an email Wednesday, said "a very small percentage of the 500 applications ...were investigatory in nature." The department says the information would be "likely discoverable only if a suspect was charged and prosecuted."

We do know charges have been brought up in some of these cases. We just don't know what was turned over to defense teams.

The Mecklenburg County Prosecutor's Office said it has just begun it's review of the unsealed court orders. The office says it will likely take several weeks to complete. In a statement the office says it lawyers "

will first meticulously review each order to determine whether a case connected with that order was prosecuted by this office. They will then examine whether the information should have been included in the discovery process, and if so, whether the information was shared with defendants in that case."

The DA's office says it won't comment further until the office has had the opportunity to review all the orders.

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