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Carlee: Charlotte police may fight to keep cellphone tracking secret

City Manager Ron Carlee said Monday that officials might contest a petition seeking to unseal court records about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s secretive surveillance of cellphones.

In a brief interview, Carlee said police leaders are talking with attorneys about whether they should fight to keep the public from viewing documents about portable equipment that collects cellphone data from criminal suspects but also gathers information from innocent people.

“We’re looking at this closely,” Carlee said.

Last week, The Charlotte Observer and its news partner, WBTV, filed a petition in Superior Court to unseal Mecklenburg County records dating to 2006.

The documents are related to how CMPD used a device, known commonly as a StingRay, that mimics a cellphone tower. The equipment can provide officers with serial numbers, location and other information about nearby phones, laptop computers and tablets that connect to cellular networks.

Privacy groups nationwide allege the technology is so intrusive it violates the Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

Court orders that authorized police to deploy the equipment could answer lingering questions about the circumstances in which CMPD officers use the technology, and judicial oversight.

CMPD says it uses the equipment to target and apprehend individuals suspected of serious felonies. In a publicly released memo, Carlee said last week that CMPD has procedures in place to protect constitutional rights.

Carlee also said details about the cellphone tracking must remain secret to comply with a nondisclosure agreement the city signed with the FBI to obtain the device. The FBI argues that information about cell-site simulators is kept under wraps because it is tied to national security and disclosure could help suspects learn to escape detection.

On Monday, City Council members John Autry and Claire Fallon said they still question whether using the cellphone tracking device is appropriate. Both have previously expressed doubts about whether it is constitutional.

“I understand the city manager and police chief (Rodney Monroe) have the best of intentions, but I am not comfortable with it,” Autry said.

Fallon, who is head of the council’s community safety committee, said she wants council members to debate the issue. She said she will lobby the council to let her committee study the pros and cons.

Open records?

Cell-site simulators have been used by federal agencies and the military since the 1990s to hunt terrorists. Local police agencies began obtaining the technology nearly a decade ago to catch criminal suspects.

But federal and local authorities have successfully blocked privacy groups and others from learning much about how police use the technology.

CMPD must seek a court order from a judge to deploy the equipment during an investigation. The orders granting officers permission are sealed from public view.

Mecklenburg Clerk of Superior Court Martha Curran has said her workers don’t allow the public to see the records until a judge orders them unsealed.

On Sunday, the Observer reported that Mecklenburg County Superior Court Judges Richard Boner and Robert Bell both said they are willing to consider unsealing some orders.

Court records, they said, are generally assumed to be open to the public.

“If it would not prejudice the state’s investigation, there wouldn’t be any reason to keep it sealed,” Boner said.

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