City of Tacoma to pay more than $311,000 in Stingray public records case

News Release: 
Tuesday, October 5, 2021
TACOMA — The City of Tacoma will pay a total of $311,607 to resolve a case in which the Tacoma Police Department improperly withheld information related to its use of a cell site simulator, an invasive surveillance device.

The ACLU of Washington filed the lawsuit against the Tacoma Police Department in 2016 on behalf of a group of plaintiffs when the department failed to disclose records related to its use of the device, violating Washington’s Public Records Act.

A cell site simulator, also known as a Stingray, is a type of surveillance technology that acts as a cell phone tower, forcing nearby cell phones to connect to the device. Police use the technology to locate suspects via their cell phones, though cell site simulators can capture personal information from all phones within range of the device, not just the phones involved in a police investigation.

Tacoma’s use of the device became public knowledge in 2014, after it was revealed that local judges were unaware the Tacoma Police Department had been using the cell site simulator since 2008. The department had used the device hundreds of times without the court or public’s knowledge. The department had also used the technology on behalf of other cities and counties, also in secret.

The revelation of Tacoma’s use of the cell site simulator inspired the Washington State Legislature to pass a law in 2015 requiring the issuance of warrants before the device could be used by law enforcement. Once that law was enacted, a group of community leaders — the plaintiffs in this case — filed a public records request with Tacoma Police to see how it used the cell site simulator and if the department complied with the new law.

The department and the City of Tacoma failed to adequately fulfill the plaintiffs’ public records request, and the ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit on plaintiffs’ behalf to force the department to comply with the state’s Public Records Act.

In 2018, a Pierce County judge ruled the City of Tacoma had violated the state’s Public Records Act and failed to provide 11 documents that should have been made public, and assessed monetary penalties and attorneys’ fees against the City. The City appealed, and the Court of Appeals ruled that most of the penalties and fees were appropriate but sent three issues back to the lower court for resolution. The City and the plaintiffs have agreed to settle those three issues for a total of $75,000 in penalties. Added to the court-awarded penalties and fees, the total the City must pay is $311,607. 

“We are happy the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma Police Department are being held accountable for not being transparent to the public about the use of this technology,” said Rev. Toney Montgomery, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “Trust in law enforcement has reached a low point for communities, particularly communities of color. To mend that trust, it is vital that these same communities aren’t the subject of secret surveillance.”

“We are very much still disturbed by the actions Tacoma Police took in using the cell site simulator and then shielding that use from the public, but we hope this case serves as a deterrent from law enforcement using such secretive tactics in the future,” said Lisa Nowlin, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Washington. “Law enforcement agencies are accountable to the communities they serve, and transparency – particularly with regard to surveillance technology – is crucial to accountability.”

The plaintiffs in this case — Montgomery, Arthur Banks, and Whitney Brady — plan to use the money from the settlement to further support their communities.

The plaintiffs are represented by staff attorneys John Midgley and Lisa Nowlin of the ACLU of Washington. ACLU-WA cooperating attorney Jennifer Campbell of Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt also represented the plaintiffs in the Superior Court.