Sheriff responds to ACLU report on Erie Co. cell phone tracking

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Erie County law enforcement’s use of cell phone tracking technology during the past four and a half years is legal and justified, Sheriff Timothy Howard said Wednesday.

In an exclusive interview with News 4, Howard responded to the New York Civil Liberties Union’s (NYCLU) report released Tuesday that suggested Erie County’s use of the “Stingray” technology was invasive and the guidelines for its use unclear.

The NYCLU released its report after a March ruling by a Supreme Court Justice forced the sheriff’s office to turn over records of the use of stingrays.

County guidelines state a Stingray device can be used if one of two requirements is met: A court order — including a warrant or subpoena — or an emergency or life-threatening situation. The technology does not allow the user to listen in on cell phone conversations.

It’s also not completely up to law enforcement. “In order to use this cell phone tracking, it’s not enough to just have the cell phone number,” Howard said. “We need the cooperation of the telephone company.”

The NYCLU claimed 46 of the 47 uses of stingrays by the sheriff’s office were done without court orders.

Sheriff Howard told News 4 that 20 of those uses were for emergency situations such as a person threatening their own life or the life of someone else. The remaining 27 instances, according to Sheriff Howard, involved a court order, warrant or subpoena.

Howard disagreed. “To suggest that one time, that only once out of all these cases, did the sheriff’s office have any legal right to do so is a complete misinterpretation of the truth,” Howard said. “You only hear one side of the argument. I’m not on trial with the ACLU. The mere fact that all the alarm here is to suggest that 10 times a year the sheriff’s office uses that is just much to do about nothing.”

We thank the ALCU for the deaths that will result – Erie County Sheriff Howard

An NYCLU spokeswoman said the organization is pleased the sheriff’s office is responding because the public has a right to know about the technology. But the practice should be even more transparent, and should be held to a higher degree of scrutiny by the courts.

“We think that the guidelines themselves should be clear, that law enforcement should get a warrant as a presumptive matter,” said NYCLU staff attorney Mariko Hirose. “Obviously, there will be exigent (dire) circumstances. But they should at least be getting a warrant.”

Howard said the recent attention Stingrays have received make the job for law enforcement more difficult. He said criminals could get a leg up, and it’ll be harder to stop people wishing to harm themselves.

“One of our fears in not wanting to talk about this is already come to be true,” Howard said. “That we have educated people that are thinking about doing harm to themselves. If you don’t want to be found, don’t take your cell phone. Leave it behind. We thank the ALCU for the deaths that will result because of that.”

Public education is a dual edged sword, Howard said.

“The public has been educated, the criminals have been educated, the suicidal people have been educated,” Howard said. “Well, thank you all very much.”

The NYCLU says the release of information is an important step toward broader transparency.

“It’s basic information that the public is entitled to know about, how their local police department is using this powerful surveillance technology,” Hirose said.

Howard said his office will continue to use Stingrays and he’ll follow any reporting guidelines that are issued by the courts or federal government.

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