The city of Tacoma’s bill for withholding large portions of a document related to cellphone surveillance is mounting.
A Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled last week that the city must pay public records activist Arthur West $44,000 for violating the Public Records Act. It is the second such penalty levied against the city this month for not releasing a nondisclosure agreement it signed to obtain equipment commonly known as a Stingray.
Judge Frank Cuthbertson ordered the city to give West $100 a day for each of the 438 days it withheld the nondisclosure agreement it signed with the FBI, from Aug. 28, 2014 to Nov. 10, 2015.
The city is on the hook to pay the same daily penalty to Seattle-based Center for Open Policing, which also requested the document. Earlier this month, Cuthbertson ordered the city to pay $50,000 to the center, plus yet-to-be-determined attorney’s fees.
The city has said the redactions were done at the request of the FBI, which requires local law enforcement to agree to keep Stingrays secret as a condition of obtaining one.
Cuthbertson’s order said withholding of the information was done in bad faith and in violation of the Public Records Act, “especially when all of the allegedly secret information therein had already been published.”
His order earlier this month in the Center for Open Policing case noted that The News Tribune had revealed the Tacoma Police Department’s use of the Stingray in August 2014, and that report was later confirmed by the city.
Margaret Elofson, an attorney for the city, said Cuthbertson announced he would recuse himself from the case going forward, but did not give an explanation, except to say that it wasn’t because of something either party had done. The case has not yet been reassigned to another judge, Elofson said.
The Stingray is one model of a cell site simulator, which mimics a cellphone tower to trick cellphones into connecting with it. Police use the Stingray to track a suspect via their cellphone, but it can gather details of other nearby devices, raising privacy concerns.
The city faces a third case related to Stingray documents. American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed a lawsuit on behalf of four Tacomans — three of them pastors of predominantly black churches — alleging the city improperly withheld documents and seeking fines.