As revealed in a RC civil complaint against a number of government officials, including several judges, District Attorney Ted Bell, and the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department, along with specific members of the Narcotics Team, the complaint alleges misuse of StingRay devices by the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department.
Stingrays – also known as cell-site simulators – are electronic devices used by various law enforcement agencies that are able to intercept cell phone calls and texts between cell phone towers and individual mobile devices. StingRays enable law enforcement to bypass wiretaps with phone companies that, until the advent of cell-site simulators, were the only means available to law enforcement to secretly listen to telephone conversations between individuals.
In mid-2020, the Sheriff’s Office was asked to produce public records regarding whether StingRays (or any other variant of cell-site simulators) were owned or utilized by the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office responded that it did not own any such devises and that their officers did not use them.
Contrary to this response, Sheriff Chris Francis openly admitted to utilizing StingRays during a recent RC-GOP meeting, during which he claimed his officers knew what drug dealers were doing through the ability to listen to their conversations. A former officer even admitted to personally confronting a person about very specific remarks only made during an intercepted call.
While eavesdropping into private conversations may be useful in identifying drug activities, a recent federal district court opinion has clarified that the use of StingRays requires that law enforcement obtain a search warrant before engaging in any type of wiretapping or clandestine listening to conversations between two or more individuals.
In addition to the concerns raised by the Sheriff’s Office’s denying ownership and use of StingRays, multiple current and former Sheriff’s deputies – over the last few months – have stated that the Sheriff’s Office does not comply with warrant requirements before using StingRay’s. These deputies have also stated that no records are kept as to which officers use them or which individuals they are used on.
RC Catalyst asked several local attorneys if they had ever been notified that StingRays had been used in surveilling their clients and had they seen warrants revealing that these “wiretapping” devices had been used.
Since Sheriff Francis openly acknowledged that his deputies utilize StingRays, the recent denial by the Sheriff’s Office as to the usage of these devices, in conjunction with multiple local defense attorneys stating that the Sheriff’s Office has never informed them that these devices were being used, raises serious questions as to how the Sheriff’s Office is using StingRays, on whom, and how frequently.
Based on these concerns, RC Catalyst has requested warrants (they are required to be kept as public records) that should document the usage of StingRays.
Until the Sheriff’s Office becomes more transparent with information about its use of StingRays, concerned citizens can use a free app called “Signal” that encrypts communications and prevents law enforcement from using StingRays to understand the content of private conversations.