Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Local cops are tracking phones then denying open records requests from journalists

Some local law enforcement agencies are using technology to get detailed information about the location and use of individual phones, and when journalists file open records requests on the matter, local agencies refuse to comply, or the federal government often steps in to seize records they claim belong to them, Susannah Nesmith and Jonathan Peters report for Columbia Journalism Review.

"Here in Florida, it’s not clear just what information about the technologies is covered under the state’s strong public records law," Nesmith and Peters write. "Records requests have produced a variety of responses, many of them not especially forthcoming. But it is clear that federal law enforcement is playing a key role in maintaining a shroud of secrecy."

In response to ACLU's public requests to 37 Florida law enforcement agencies for open records "state police have claimed the records are exempt under state law; in one case, a local department refused to confirm or deny the existence of such records," Nesmith and Peters write.

"But the most remarkable response came from the Sarasota Police Department, which in May was poised to release to Michael Barfield, vice president of the ACLU of Florida, records concerning applications and orders related to the department’s use of surveillance devices," writes the Review. "However, hours before the scheduled release, the records were instead seized by the Marshals Service, which had intervened to claim the records as its own, as the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported. The federal agency said it had deputized the Sarasota officer who created the records, and therefore they were federal property not subject to state public records law."

Scott Ponce, a Miami-based media lawyer, told Nesmith and Peters, “We deal frequently with state agencies giving copies of documents to federal agencies and incorrectly claiming that something about the transfer makes them exempt from state public records law, but I have never seen the transfer of the creator of the records.”

But Sarasota County Judge Charles E. Williams "dismissed an action brought by Barfield and the ACLU to compel the production of the records," Nesmith and Peters write. "Williams said he lacked jurisdiction because the Sarasota officer had been deputized and 'assigned to a federally created regional task force,' and the state public records law doesn’t apply to 'records maintained by [the Sarasota officer] while operating in his capacity as a sworn federal law enforcement agent.” (Read more)

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