Police secretly track cellphones to solve routine crimes

Posted: Friday August 28, 2015, 9:38 PM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

BALTIMORE — The crime itself was ordinary: Someone smashed the back window of a parked car one evening and ran off with a cellphone. What was unusual was how the police hunted the thief.

Detectives did it by secretly using one of the government’s most powerful phone surveillance tools — capable of intercepting data from hundreds of people’s cellphones at a time — to track the phone, and with it their suspect, to the doorway of a public housing complex. They used it to search for a car thief, too. And a woman who made a string of harassing phone calls.

In one case after another, USA TODAY found police in Baltimore and other cities used the phone tracker, commonly known as a stingray, to locate the perpetrators of routine street crimes and frequently concealed that fact from the suspects, their lawyers and even judges. In the process, they quietly transformed a form of surveillance billed as a tool to hunt terrorists and kidnappers into a staple of everyday policing.

The suitcase-size tracking systems, which can cost as much as $400,000, allow the police to pinpoint a phone’s location within a few yards by posing as a cell tower. In the process, they can intercept information from the phones of nearly everyone else who happens to be nearby, including innocent bystanders. They do not intercept the content of any communications.

Dozens of police departments from Miami to Los Angeles own similar devices. A USA TODAY Media Network investigation identified more than 35 of them in 2013 and 2014, and the American Civil Liberties Union has found 18 more. When and how the police have used those devices is mostly a mystery, in part because the FBI swore them to secrecy.

Police and court records in Baltimore offer a partial answer. USA TODAY obtained a police surveillance log and matched it with court files to paint the broadest picture yet of how those devices have been used. The records show that the city's police used stingrays to catch everyone from killers to petty thieves, that the authorities regularly hid or obscured that surveillance once suspects got to court and that many of those they arrested were never prosecuted.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.


Defense lawyers in Baltimore are examining nearly 2,000 cases in which the police secretly used powerful cellphone tracking devices, and they plan to ask judges to throw out “a large number” of criminal convictions as a result.

DEA eavesdropping tripled, bypassed federal courts

Posted: Wednesday June 3, 2015, 5:02 PM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration more than tripled its use of wiretaps and other types of electronic eavesdropping over the past decade, largely bypassing federal courts and Justice Department lawyers in the process, newly obtained records show.

The DEA conducted 11,681 electronic intercepts in the fiscal year that ended in September. Ten years earlier, the drug agency conducted 3,394.

Most of that ramped-up surveillance was never reviewed by federal judges or Justice Department lawyers, who typically are responsible for examining federal agents' eavesdropping requests. Instead, DEA agents now take 60% of those requests directly to local prosecutors and judges from New York to California, who current and former officials say often approve them more quickly and easily.

Drug investigations account for the vast majority of U.S. wiretaps, and much of that surveillance is carried out by the DEA. Privacy advocates expressed concern that the drug agency had expanded its surveillance without going through internal Justice Department reviews, which often are more demanding than federal law requires.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

U.S. secretly tracked billions of calls for decades

Posted: Wednesday April 8, 2015, 1:34 PM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government started keeping secret records of Americans' international telephone calls nearly a decade before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, harvesting billions of calls in a program that provided a blueprint for the far broader National Security Agency surveillance that followed.

For more than two decades, the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration amassed logs of virtually all telephone calls from the USA to as many as 116 countries linked to drug trafficking, current and former officials involved with the operation said. The targeted countries changed over time but included Canada, Mexico and most of Central and South America.

Federal investigators used the call records to track drug cartels' distribution networks in the USA, allowing agents to detect previously unknown trafficking rings and money handlers. They also used the records to help rule out foreign ties to the bombing in 1995 of a federal building in Oklahoma City and to identify U.S. suspects in a wide range of other investigations.

The Justice Department revealed in January that the DEA had collected data about calls to "designated foreign countries." But the history and vast scale of that operation have not been disclosed until now.

The now-discontinued operation, carried out by the DEA's intelligence arm, was the government's first known effort to gather data on Americans in bulk, sweeping up records of telephone calls made by millions of U.S. citizens regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime. It was a model for the massive phone surveillance system the NSA launched to identify terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks. That dragnet drew sharp criticism that the government had intruded too deeply into Americans' privacy after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked it to the news media two years ago.

More than a dozen current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials described the details of the Justice Department operation to USA TODAY. Most did so on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the intelligence program, part of which remains classified.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

Rules to keep federal prosecutors in line revealed

Posted: Thursday March 12, 2015, 3:59 AM>

WASHINGTON – Five years ago, after a major corruption case imploded because federal prosecutors had improperly concealed evidence, the U.S. Justice Department ordered its lawyers to start turning over more information to criminal defense lawyers. But the rules for what prosecutors must share and when remained almost entirely secret, until now.

USA TODAY obtained copies of the department's internal guidelines under the Freedom of Information Act and is publishing them here.

"I think these policies are actually the right policies," said Timothy O'Toole, one of the chairmen of a National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers panel that has been pushing Congress to enact similar measures. "The biggest problem is that nobody outside the prosecutor's office actually knows what those policies are."

Without knowing what the rules are, it's impossible to know whether prosecutors are following them, he said.

The policies mostly instruct prosecutors to turn over more information to defense lawyers more quickly — steps lawmakers and some judges had pressed for in the months after the disastrous prosecution of former Alaska senator Ted Stevens. That case collapsed because government lawyers had improperly concealed evidence from Stevens' lawyers that would have badly damaged the credibility of government witnesses.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

New police radars can 'see' inside homes

Posted: Tuesday January 20, 2015, 1:35 AM>

WASHINGTON — At least 50 U.S. law enforcement agencies have secretly equipped their officers with radar devices that allow them to effectively peer through the walls of houses to see whether anyone is inside, a practice raising new concerns about the extent of government surveillance.

Those agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, began deploying the radar systems more than two years ago with little notice to the courts and no public disclosure of when or how they would be used. The technology raises legal and privacy issues because the U.S. Supreme Court has said officers generally cannot use high-tech sensors to tell them about the inside of a person's house without first obtaining a search warrant.

The radars work like finely tuned motion detectors, using radio waves to zero in on movements as slight as human breathing from a distance of more than 50 feet. They can detect whether anyone is inside of a house, where they are and whether they are moving.

Current and former federal officials say the information is critical for keeping officers safe if they need to storm buildings or rescue hostages. But privacy advocates and judges have nonetheless expressed concerned about the circumstances in which law enforcement agencies may be using the radars — and the fact that they have so far done so without public scrutiny.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.


Radar devices that allow police officers to effectively see into suspects' homes raise "privacy concerns of the highest order," top lawmakers on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee said Thursday in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.

Finally wanted: Police to chase thousands of fugitives

Posted: Monday December 29, 2014, 12:55 AM>

PHILADELPHIA — Five years after he ran from charges that he assaulted a sleeping college student on an overnight flight from Los Angeles, Yamin Ren is finally a wanted man.

For years, authorities said they would not spend the time or money to pursue Ren — who lived in California — as long as he stayed out of their state. For years, he remained free.

Now, after a USA TODAY investigation, authorities here and across the USA have promised to bring Ren and thousands of other fugitives back to face justice regardless of where they are found.

The newspaper found this year that more than 330,000 accused felons — including some wanted in rapes and murders — can escape the charges against them merely by crossing a state border because police and prosecutors secretly decided in advance not to go that far to retrieve them. In the months that followed, officials from Florida to Pennsylvania reversed those decisions by the thousands, informing the FBI that they intend to retrieve fugitives from anyplace in the USA.

In Philadelphia, prosecutors reviewed thousands of the city's old felony case files and identified hundreds of fugitives they plan to retrieve if the suspects surface in other states, a process known as extradition. Prosecutors approved extradition in at least 500 new cases, promising to seek people from other states for crimes as minor as drug possession, according to FBI records and court files.

"Philadelphia took to heart the story and realized that maybe they weren't doing as good of a job as they could have been. So I think they've certainly increased their efforts," said Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm.

Progress in Philadelphia and elsewhere has nonetheless been halting, illustrating the challenges officials face in pursuing fugitives across the nation's patchwork justice system. Despite having identified hundreds of fugitives who should have been approved for extradition, many of the changes had yet to be entered into the FBI's fugitive tracking database as of mid-October, meaning some of the suspects could continue to get away. In many other cities, the number of fugitives police say they won't pursue has shot up dramatically.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

Police stop pursuing nearly 79,000 fugitives

Posted: Sunday December 21, 2014, 1:28 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

YUCAIPA, Calif. — For a time, the intruder charged with pressing a revolver to Armando Botello's forehead truly was a wanted man. When he disappeared, the police promised to pursue him anywhere in the United States.

No longer. Last year, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department notified the FBI that it would pursue the accused armed robber only as far as the state border, even though investigators suspected he had long since left California.

In effect, the change meant that as long as the gunman left the state, he, like thousands of others, was now free to go.

Nationwide, police and prosecutors quietly told the FBI they had abandoned their pursuit of nearly 79,000 accused felons during the past year and a half, a USA TODAY investigation found. They have given up chasing people charged with armed robbery and raping children, usually without informing their victims. Police in one county in California reported they would no longer pursue three of their most-wanted fugitives and a man charged with a murder for which prosecutors have sought the death penalty.

The authorities had previously told the FBI – which maintains a vast index of the nation's fugitives – that they would arrest each of those suspects if police anywhere else in the United States happened to find them, a process known as extradition. But in each case, police and prosecutors have since indicated they will no longer fetch the fugitives if they flee.

So each can now escape the charges simply by crossing state lines. And FBI records suggest many do.

"That shocks me. I can't imagine why anybody would take a major felony and say we'll only arrest him within the state," said Joshua Marquis, the county prosecutor in Astoria, Ore., and a former vice president of the National District Attorneys Association. "I cannot imagine a case of sexual abuse or rape or murder where I would not go to the ends of the earth to get that person back."

In March, a USA TODAY investigation identified thousands of fugitives who police said they would not pursue if they fled the state, usually because they did not want to spend the time or money needed to get them back. The decisions, typically made in secret, allowed old crimes to go unpunished and offered fugitives a virtual license to commit new ones, often as close as in the state next door.

Those cases are multiplying. In just the past year and a half, the total number of fugitives who police won't pursue beyond a state border swelled nearly 77%, to 330,665. The main reason was police agencies changing their minds about what to do with people who have been wanted for years.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

Racial gap in U.S. arrest rates: 'Staggering disparity'

Posted: Wednesday November 19, 2014, 3:18 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

When it comes to racially lopsided arrests, the most remarkable thing about Ferguson, Mo., might be just how ordinary it is.

Police in Ferguson — which erupted into days of racially charged unrest after a white officer killed an unarmed black teen — arrest black people at a rate nearly three times higher than people of other races.

At least 1,581 other police departments across the USA arrest black people at rates even more skewed than in Ferguson, a USA TODAY analysis of arrest records shows. That includes departments in cities as large and diverse as Chicago and San Francisco and in the suburbs that encircle St. Louis, New York and Detroit.


Those disparities are easier to measure than they are to explain. They could be a reflection of biased policing; they could just as easily be a byproduct of the vast economic and educational gaps that persist across much of the USA — factors closely tied to crime rates. In other words, experts said, the fact that such disparities exist does little to explain their causes.

"That does not mean police are discriminating. But it does mean it's worth looking at. It means you might have a problem, and you need to pay attention," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, a leading expert on racial profiling.

Whatever the reasons, the results are the same: Blacks are far more likely to be arrested than any other racial group in the USA. In some places, dramatically so.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.

The FOIA ombudsman turns five

Posted: Tuesday November 11, 2014, 3:00 AM>

Halloween is a day to celebrate the ludicrous, so it was also a fine time to discuss the current state of FOIA. This year, it was also an opportunity to look back at the first five years of the federal government's new FOIA ombudsman, the Office of Government Information Services. I had high expectations for OGIS. I thought it would be able to grab reluctant agencies by the ankles, turn them upside-down, and shake them until the records I wanted fell out. I thought it would at least tell me when I'm right. That's not what happened. That doesn't mean OGIS isn't having an impact -- it is. But it's not what I was expecting.

U.S. misinformed Congress, public on immigrant release

Posted: Thursday October 23, 2014, 11:03 AM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

New records contradict the Obama administration's assurances to Congress and the public that the 2,200 people it freed from immigration jails last year to save money had only minor criminal records.

The records, obtained by USA TODAY, show immigration officials released some undocumented immigrants who had faced far more serious criminal charges, including people charged with kidnapping, sexual assault, drug trafficking and homicide.

The release sparked a furor in Congress. Republican lawmakers accused the Obama administration of setting dangerous criminals free. In response, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it had released "low-risk offenders who do not have serious criminal records," a claim the administration repeated to the public and to members of Congress.

The new records, including spreadsheets and hundreds of pages of e-mails, offer the most detailed information yet about the people ICE freed as it prepared for steep, across-the-government spending cuts in February 2013. They show that although two-thirds of the people who were freed had no criminal records, several had been arrested or convicted on charges more severe than the administration had disclosed.

Read the rest at USA TODAY.