CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department has received permission to use a controversial high-tech cell phone tracker, known as a "Stingray" more than 500 times in the past five years. The information comes from court documents released for the first time late Thursday afternoon.
A "Stingray" is a device that simulates a cell phone tower. Phone numbers within its radius are collected up by the device whether the cell phone owner is a suspect in a crime, or not. It's secrecy of use and collection of collateral information has concerned civil libertarians and defense attorneys.
CMPD has said the equipment does not collect data like text messages and does not allow officers to hear, or record conversations. The department also says it does not store information from people who are not part of their investigation.
CMPD has used the technology since 2006, most recently upgrading it with a more than $300,000 purchase in 2012. Non-disclosure agreements with the manufacturer and the FBI have kept it's capabilities out of the public light.
Investigators have sought court orders, signed by local judges to use it, but those were put under seal and never assigned to a case. From 2006 to 2010 the orders weren't even kept at the courthouse. They were stored in CMPD's investigative files and are not open to public record's requests. A recommendation from the North Carolina School of Government led to a change and the orders being stored at the county clerk's office.
WBTV and our news partners at the Charlotte Observer filed a motion asking the court to unseal the orders stored at the courthouse. Superior Court Judge Richard Boner signed the request and the documents were released.
An initial review of the documents shows no instances of CMPD's requests being denied and there is no mention of a "Stingray," or cell site simulator in the requests. The police only ask to track a suspect's cell phone's "GPS coordinates in real time."
The requests were made as part of investigations in crimes ranging from murder to rape to drug offenses to car break-ins. In one request the suspect apparently taunted his pursuer, telling the officer, "do his job, come find me."
Reporters from WBTV and The Charlotte Observer weren't the only ones seeing the documents for the first time. Representatives from the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office were also getting a first look.
The DA's office says it knew CMPD had the technology, but they had never seen the orders because they were under seal.
Defense Attorney's have raised questions about the use of the technology and the lack of transparency. Many want to know if arrests were made and charges were brought against suspects identified in the orders. If they were, many are asking why wasn't the information handed over as part of the discovery process where all evidence is turned over to defense teams?
The DA's office says what is in these orders may turn out to be irrelevant to any prosecutions, but admit they don't know for sure and are going to have to go through all the files to make sure the law was followed.