Lawmaker wants state to investigate use of cell phone tracking device

Sheriff Howard says device was used legally; says Assemblyman is "grandstanding"

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan says the Erie County Sheriff should get a search warrant when using a cell phone tracking device, known as a Stingray.

Ryan says the sheriff is still hiding information and he wants the state attorney general to investigate.

“We started talking about this over a year ago. During that year, the sheriff has put up a real fight to make it so that the people of Erie County wouldn’t know that he bought this device and wouldn’t know how much he paid for this device and wouldn’t know how he uses it,” Ryan said. “What’s to hide?”

“People don’t want law enforcement fishing into their cell phones if they are not subject to a criminal investigation,” said Ryan, a Democrat who represents parts of Buffalo, Lackawanna and Hamburg.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard says Ryan is “grandstanding” and urged him to “read the documents and see the judicial review references.”

Howard says the device does not listen to anyone’s cell phone calls. It is used to locate a cell phone.

It was used 47 times in over four years. Reports showed 27 were emergencies such as a person threatening their own life or the life of someone else and 20 had legal review such as warrants, court orders or subpoenas.

The New York Civil Liberties Union had to go to court to get the documents when Howard refused to release them.

“We are using it properly,” said Howard. “We were unable to talk about this until the court ruled that we had to.”

Howard said the $350,000 federal grant used to pay for the device prevented him from talking about it.

Ryan says the sheriff’s failure to get a search warrant when using the device could violate the Constitution.

He’s asking the state attorney general’s Public Integrity Bureau to investigate. A spokesperson for the state attorney general declined to comment.

The NYCLU released its report last week after a March ruling by a Supreme Court Justice forced the sheriff’s office to turn over records of the use of stingrays. The NYCLU claimed 46 of the 47 uses of StingRays by the sheriff’s office were done without court orders.

Howard disagreed with the NYACLU’s report.

“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.”

Howard said use of the StingRay is 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.”

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.”

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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