- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Prosecutors have dropped more than a dozen charges against three defendants just one day before a city police officer was to face questions about a secret device used to locate suspects in a robbery spree.

The move this month freed the officer from having to testify about a surveillance tool, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (https://bit.ly/1b8S2OP ) reported. Called “cell site simulators,” the tool can allow a cellphone to be tracked to even a particular room.

But civil libertarians say they lead to warrantless searches, and they’re subject to a confidentiality agreement between the St. Louis police and the FBI.

A spokeswoman for Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce’s office declined to answer detailed questions but denied there was any connection between the charges’ dismissal and the officer’s impending deposition. Documents dismissing the three robbery cases say simply that the investigation disclosed evidence that diminishes the merits of this case.

But Megan Beesley, the public defender, said she is convinced that prosecutors dropped the cases rather than allow defense lawyers to question a police Intelligence Unit officer about whether a simulator, often called by the brand name StingRay, was used in the case.

The case stems from a string of cash and cellphone robberies on Oct. 28, 2013. The next day, investigators traced at least one of the victims’ phones to a motel room in Caseyville, Illinois. Three men from East St. Louis and a woman from St. Charles were later charged with 14 counts of first-degree robbery and armed criminal action.

Beesley and two other defense lawyers became curious after reading in a report that a “proven law enforcement technique” had located the phone.

Asked about the phrase in a Nov. 7, 2014, deposition and a March 31 hearing, Det. John Anderson said he could not answer. He cited a nondisclosure agreement and the fact he received the information from the police Intelligence Unit.

Defense lawyers scheduled a deposition April 9 to ask an intelligence officer under oath about StingRay. But the charges were dismissed April 8 against all but the female defendant. She had already admitted to the crimes and agreed to testify against the others but now wants to rescind her guilty plea.

Brandon Pavelich, who was pistol-whipped in one of the robberies and required 18 stitches, said he was “shocked” when prosecutors told him the charges were dropped and explained only that “legal issues” had developed.

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com

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