Cops in Palm Beach County and across the country are using secret cellphone tracking devices that could let them see your phone number, exact location and possibly everything on your phone while they look for suspects. You’re not supposed to know.
No, this is not the beginning of a conspiracy novel.
It’s a well-documented reality so guarded that it took months of legal wrangling in a death penalty case against a 28-year-old Belle Glade man to get the first public glimpse at how local and federal authorities work together to use a mobile, briefcase-sized device known as a stingray that masquerades as a cell tower and sweeps up information from thousands of cellphones at a time — including yours.
This desire for secrecy runs so deep, according to documents made public across the country, that police have agreed on paper to hide information from judges, go without key evidence in criminal cases and even seek to drop charges against defendants altogether rather than talk about the stingray in court.
The mystery surrounding the potential local use of real-time cellphone tracking equipment lifted in part this week when a judge granted The Palm Beach Post’s request to view parts of two search warrants in the case of Dacoby Wooten, who prosecutors are seeking to put to death in the 2015 murder of the mother of two of his children.
“My concern is that all records in a judicial case are supposed to be public,” Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo said Tuesday, later adding: “This court does not find that the release of this record threatens a government interest.”
The judge’s ruling comes months after Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies refused to answer questions from defense attorneys about whether they used the device. Prosecutors told the judge they couldn’t force the deputies to talk about it because they had been working as U.S. Marshals in the two-day manhunt for Wooten, making it a federal matter.
As for the warrants, neither the judge, Wooten’s attorneys nor Palm Beach County court clerks knew they even existed until June — nearly three years after Wooten’s arrest and less than two months before what was supposed to be the start of his trial.
Under Florida law, search warrants in state court cases are supposed to be filed with the local clerk’s office after they are executed. Most of the time, they become public records at that point. If a judge allows the record to be temporarily barred from public view, then a sealed envelope with the document goes to the clerk.
That’s not what happened in Wooten’s case.
The warrant The Post obtained Tuesday was never filed with the clerk’s office, not even under seal, after Wooten’s arrest. In a June 29 hearing, Wooten’s attorneys, assistant Public Defenders Christine Geraghty and Scott Pribble, wanted to know why.
“They were sent to Washington,” is the explanation Assistant State Attorney Aleathea McRoberts provided.
Experts and critics of law enforcement’s use of the device say this answer doesn’t surprise them.
Marshals swoop in, take documents
In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a public records request with the Sarasota Police Department to view records about stingray use by one of the department’s officers who, like the detectives in Wooten’s case, had been cross-sworn as a U.S. Marshal.
City officials set up an appointment for the ACLU lawyers to review the documents, but hours before the appointment, according to ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, the U.S. Marshals instructed city officials not to release them.
Then, the Marshals drove down from a regional office in Tampa and physically removed the files from the office.
The ACLU went to the clerk’s office looking for search warrants authorizing stingray use in the cases they’d identified. The clerk’s office had nothing to give them.
Wessler and others attribute cases like this and others around the country to the belief that neither the stingray’s manufacturers nor law enforcement want the public to know how, when or how often they use it.
Law enforcement agencies, on the other hand, say they worry releasing details of the technology will hamper their efforts to catch the likes of drug traffickers and terrorists, yet the scant records that have been made public show most use them for less organized crimes – robberies, burglaries and sometimes homicides.
And a spokesman for the local U.S. Marshals Service told The Post this week that the cellphone tracking law enforcement uses can’t access half the information that its critics think it can.
“I think people watch too much TV,” U.S. Marshals assistant chief Manny Puri said in a phone interview Thursday. “I wish it could do as much as you think it does. If it did, I could go into my super secret squirrel van right now and just fire it up and I could catch everyone. I’d clean up. We’d have a 100 percent clearance rate.”
Puri attributed the hush surrounding the device’s use to proprietary interests of the Stingray’s manufacturer, Harris Corp.
The Melbourne, Fla.-based company, whose engineers originally developed the stingray for the military, didn’t want to talk to The Post this week about the device.
“Sorry but we’re not going to be able to help you with your story,” Sleighton F. Meyer, senior principal of communications, said in response to a voicemail requesting an interview.
There is no specific mention of Harris, or the stingray, in the search warrants Caracuzzo made public Tuesday. Other companies in recent years have created similar cellphone tracking devices, but Harris was the first. The multi-billion dollar company, whose lists of products range from two-way police radios to space needles, sells stingrays for about $250,000 apiece to law enforcement and government agencies around the country.
Law enforcement officials who have publicly admitted to using the device call it a powerful tool, not just in catching criminals, but in locating missing persons and providing other services.
While Puri and others attribute speculation about the device to conspiracy theories, experts like John Sawicki say that if there’s any hyperbole about what police are doing with the device, then it’s their own fault.
Sawicki is a Tallahassee-based attorney and founder of Forensic Data Corp., a company that provides digital forensic examination in criminal, civil, employment and other cases. Having worked on nearly two dozen cases involving the use of a stingray, he is the closest thing Florida has to an expert on the use of the device.
Sawicki says many people believe the stingray acts as a “man-in-the middle” device, which would allow it to capture information from cellphones and then transmit it to legitimate cellphone towers. If that is true, Sawicki said, then the stingray would be able to monitor content from the phone. But the public doesn’t really know.
Although Sawicki says he’s personally unsure whether law enforcement officers are using the device this way, he believes the fact that the Department of Justice has issued directives for agencies not to set the devices to pull that kind of data is a clear sign that the capabilities are there.
“Why would you need to put out a rule … if the device can’t do it?” Sawicki asked. “And of course you’re saying that’s just what we think you can do, but that’s what we’re forced to think because you’re not saying anything about what it can actually do.”
Degrees of information
In the 14-page document released to The Post Tuesday, then-Palm Beach County Judge Daliah Weiss signed off on a request from Agent Thomas Kelly, who identified himself in court records as working for PBSO, although his request was on the behalf of PBSO and the U.S. Marshals Service.
The first warrant was for Wooten’s phone. In a second warrant, Kelly said Wooten had “turned off his cellphone in an attempt to elude law enforcement and was now using a new cellular telephone number.”
Neither the application nor the search warrant mention a stingray by name, but the warrant authorized the use of “cell site activation locations,” a “trap and trace device,” “the use of GEO/Precision locations,” Mobile location tools” and other devices for up to 60 days from the time of the request.
McRoberts, chief of the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office Homicide Unit, said in court records this year that “the state is not in possession, nor had knowledge of” the investigative techniques law enforcement used to capture Wooten and “were unable to obtain that information.”
However, the signature of Assistant State Attorney Lauren Godden, one of about a half dozen prosecutors assigned to McRoberts’ unit, appears on the search warrants three times.
The State Attorney’s Office did not respond to an emailed request for an interview or comment this week, but an assistant in the office reiterated in a phone call the office’s policy that prosecutors do not typically comment outside of court on open cases.
The warrant application acknowledges that a real-time cellphone tracking device can disrupt service of both the target’s cellphone and others in the same area, something that attorneys like Stephanie Lacambra from the Electronic Frontier Foundation finds troubling.
“It’s a digital dragnet that pulls in everyone’s information in an area, but because it also has the potential to interrupt service, it could block calls for 911 or other emergency services,” Lacambra said. “Unless you’ve had a reason to know about it or been victimized by it, then it’s unlikely that you would ever notice.”
PBSO did not comment this week on specific questions about their use of the stingray, other than to refer The Post to speak with the Marshals regarding the work of deputies cross-sworn by their office.
The stingray’s sting
According to the few court records that have surfaced about Stingrays, they can do a lot more than just “track.”
Often characterized as cell site simulators or International Mobile Subscriber Identity-catchers, the devices can fit into a briefcase and mimic cellphone towers to pinpoint the location and cellphone information of anyone with a cellphone in the area targeted.
When a stingray is in operation, cellphones searching for a signal to make a call are routed to the device.
This has sparked court battles across the country over the use of stingrays and other similar devices. Both the Florida and U.S. Supreme Courts in recent decisions limit how law enforcement can use cellphone tracking in general and require agencies to get a search warrant.
The American Civil Liberties Union sent a public records request to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to get records of their use of stingray and found that the agency as of 2014 had 11 Stingrays purchased from Harris.
ACLU attorneys said FDLE loaned the equipment to law enforcement agencies around the state through a mutual assistance agreement that allows them to help local agencies to solve crimes. Wessler told The Post in June that FDLE cited 1,800 uses of the device by law enforcement agencies across the state.
Although court rulings and federal agency rulings require search warrants, Wessler said his organization found next to no search warrants in Florida. In fact, the ACLU found that by and large local and state agencies were hiding the fact that they used the equipment.
“There should be records or something about this in the investigative case notes. But universally they were using euphemisms,” Wessler said.
Critics say the secrecy leaves criminal defendants powerless to question the tool used to gather evidence against them. In Wooten’s case, it remains unclear how extensively detectives used cell-phone tracking to find him, although it is now clear from court records that they used it.
The end was clear, but not the means
On the day before Thanksgiving, local television news flashed images of a group of armed, bulletproof vest-clad U.S. Marshals ushering a handcuffed, shirtless man with long dreadlocks into a waiting squad car.
A short time before the cameras captured that footage, a pair of SWAT officers stormed into a bedroom of an apartment on I Street in Fort Pierce, ballistic shields in hand. The shirtless man, Wooten, lay on the floor of the closet with a gun pressed to the side of his head.
It had been two days since Sharon Bryant told detectives that Wooten had yelled that he had nothing to live for in the moments before he allegedly shot and killed her daughter and the mother of his two children, Dav-Neisha Bryant. That was a Monday.
In the hours afterward, detectives struggled to find clues on Wooten’s whereabouts.
The next day, tactical agents tracked down one of Wooten’s girlfriends, a West Palm Beach woman named Ashley Everett. She told them that Wooten had called her and confessed to the shooting. They asked to listen in if he called her again. She agreed.
In the calls, according to court records, Wooten tells Everett he’s with a woman he met on Facebook, but that he misses Everett. He also allegedly acknowledges shooting Bryant and says he’ll “probably do 20,” referring to a prison sentence.
On one of those calls, a detective noted: “Wooten makes a comment about her phone being ‘tapped,’ saying she wouldn’t even know if it was.”
Investigators initially did not reveal how they tracked Wooten down from there. Police records make only vague references to having found Wooten in Fort Pierce “through investigation.”
A detective later said Wooten had called Everett at least once from the phone of Daline Delva. It was Delva who lived in the apartment on I Street.
Investigators found Wooten in the bedroom closet there on that Wednesday morning, where his threat of suicide quickly failed.
“I can’t do it to myself,” the officers said he yelled to them. “Y’all gonna have to do it.”
The standoff ended soon afterward with Wooten in custody for what appeared to be a slam-dunk first degree murder case. Then came the questions about the stingray, which has led defense attorneys to ask Caracuzzo to throw out the case altogether.
Caracuzzo told attorneys she would not throw out the murder charges against Wooten altogether even if she were to deem the search warrant insufficient to justify the use of a stingray.
But she could rule that jurors won’t get to hear testimony about evidence gathered against him during the arrest, including the .38 caliber Titan Tiger six-shot revolver that forensic evidence suggests is the weapon that killed Bryant.
It would also mean that jurors wouldn’t get to hear statements Wooten made to investigators after his arrest, including claims that he wasn’t the one who killed Bryant and that the real killer was a man named “Toe Jam” with whom he’d been involved in a feud over the murder of Wooten’s friend the previous December in Belle Glade.
Had the charges been on the line, how prosecutors would have been forced to respond all depends on the agreement between the cellphone tracking device manufacturer and the agency using it.
Influence from The War on Terror
Courts in other parts of the country have taken a hard line against agencies reluctant to reveal information about stingrays.
In June, a Washington state judge ordered the city of Tacoma to pay nearly $300,000 in fines, attorneys costs and fees, finding that city officials deliberately withheld 11 public records regarding the Tacoma Police Department’s use of a stingray from the ACLU — a violation of that state’s Public Records Act.
That same year, prosecutors in a Baltimore robbery case agreed to throw out key evidence against a 16-year-old accused of stealing a cellphone rather than discuss if and how they used a stingray. The teen eventually pleaded guilty to a 15-year suspended sentence and five years’ probation.
Detectives cited a nondisclosure agreement with Harris that prohibited them from answering questions publicly about the device — even if those questions came from a judge.
Florida law enforcement agencies have signed similar agreements.
In a 2012 agreement between Harris, the FBI, the FDLE and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the local agency had to agree to give wide latitude to federal authorities in exchange for the chance to use a stingray.
“The Florida Department of Law Enforcement will, at the request of the FBI, seek dismissal of the case in lieu of using or providing, or allowing others to use or provide, any information concerning the Harris Corporation wireless collection equipment/technology,” the agreement reads, later including that the agreement also covers information about software associated with the stingray, operating manuals and other documents “if using or providing such information would potentially or actually compromise the equipment/technology.”
The agreement also calls for local agencies and the FDLE to inform the FBI when a judge or other public entity has compelled them to turn over information regarding their use of a stingray, so that the FBI can intervene if necessary.
Groups like the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank, believe that agencies get away with the secrecy by playing on societal fears.
“What the War on Drugs did for police militarization, the War on Terror is now doing for police intelligence gathering, and the privacy of millions of Americans is at risk,” Adam Bates from the CATO Institute wrote.
Michael Cherry is one of the founders of Cherry Biometrics, a company of telecommunincations programmers that work as expert witnesses. He said that although the idea of law enforcement rifling through the average citizen’s private messages conjures up real-life parallels to something out of a George Orwell novel, the advance of technology is a sure sign that law enforcement is far from alone in the ability to track people just like you.
“I don’t think the average person in your city or other cities just like it realizes just how much real-time tracking is going on around them,” Cherry said.
Information a stingray can capture about you
Stingrays can sweep up the following information about everyone within a certain radius of a suspect police are tracking:
1. Who you call
2. Where you are – even within your own home
3. Your text messages and voice mail (some devices even allow texts to be edited)
4. Websites you visit