Attorneys in Baltimore are reviewing hundreds of convictions after an investigation revealed that police there have secretly used cell phone surveillance tools in nearly 2,000 criminal cases.
Following a report in USA Today that exposed the extent of the Baltimore Police Department’s use of cell-tracking technology to locate suspects sought in connection with low-level crimes, lawyers in the city’s public defender office now tell the paper they plan to ask the court to toss out “a large number” of convictions.
“This is a crisis, and to me it needs to be addressed very quickly,” Baltimore’s deputy public defender, Natalie Finegar, told USA Today. “No stone is going to be left unturned at this point.”
Law enforcement tools such as the StingRay, an “IMSI-catcher” used by investigators across the U.S., function by acting similarly to ordinary cell towers. The devices are designed to receive signals that are automatically sent by phones within range that are attempting to connect with actual service providers.
In the possession of the police, that data can be used by investigators to narrow in on a targeted device and pinpoint the location of a person of interest.
Their use has been largely shrouded in secrecy, however, and USA Today recently concluded that police in Baltimore have not only deployed their spy tools more than 1,900 times, but they did so while investigating low-level crimes and without acknowledging it in court.
Since police may not have been authorized to conduct digital surveillance in many of those cases, Ms. Finegar’s office is combing through past convictions to see if secret StingRay usage played a part in putting anyone behind bars unbeknownst to them or their attorneys.
“This has really opened the floodgates,” Baltimore defense lawyer Josh Insley told the paper.
Baltimore Police Det. Emmanuel Cabreja testified in April that that the city used “cell site simulators,” including the StingRay, approximately 4,300 times during the preceding eight years, but he said he was under the impression that a nondisclosure agreement between the BPD and the FBI had prohibited officials from ever discussing the technology.
The document, Det. Cabreja told a judge, said investigators must “withhold evidence from the state’s attorney and Circuit Court, even upon court order to produce.”
Similar probes in Buffalo, New York, and St. Louis, Missouri, revealed that police there were told to drop criminal cases altogether in lieu of admitting in court that StingRays had aided in an investigation.
Mr. Insley, the defense attorney, told the Baltimore Sun in April that the covert use of StingRays by local police was department’s “worst-kept secret.” He said at the time that law enforcement had usually used the spy tech without obtaining search warrants, instead relying on court orders that can be obtained without demonstrating the same standard of proof.