Compliance Management, Privacy

California nonprofit sues San Diego Police Department over stingray documents

A California-based nonprofit is suing the San Diego Police Department and the City of San Diego in an effort to get public records released on the force's stingray use.

The First Amendment Coalition filed a state public records request to police in October asking for any records pertaining to the department's “possession and use of a cellular phone surveillance device manufactured by Harris Corp. and referred to as an IMSI-catcher,” or stingray, according to the case's court documents. In response, the department sent over a thoroughly redacted purchase order that provided a total amount due of $33,000. The items and their specific costs were redacted. The redactions were made to “protect information that would reveal security or intelligence information,” the court documents say.

Peter Scheer, executive director, First Amendment Coalition, followed up with a request that the department confirm the existence of other records and specifically clarify why they are being withheld.  

“Somebody has to show that everything that we've asked for, item by item by item, that their release would be damaging to national security,” Scheer said in a Thursday interview with “They don't have to make a very extensive presentation on that, but they have to demonstrate that they have actually thought about it at a minimum.”

Scheer elaborated on the case to say that it appears that some police departments around the country have entered into secret agreements with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

“We (the coalition) find this a matter of concern, and in particular, want to test the proposition that the FBI's wishes automatically override the freedom of information laws of California and senior laws in any other state,” Scheer said. “It seems to be the view of the police department.”

The First Amendment Coalition coordinates with journalists and news organizations to secure the release of public documents surrounding stingray use.

Earlier this year, a newspaper, separate from this case and the nonprofit organization, successfully petitioned police in the Charlotte-Mecklenurg, N.C. area to unseal more than 500 requests to use stingray technology.

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