Watchdog

Tacoma owes $300K in latest loss over Stingray records. Now it's appealing the verdict

Tacoma has appealed a court decision that resulted in a nearly $300,000 payout after a judge ruled the city violated state law by withholding records related to a police surveillance device called a cell site simulator.

In paperwork filed last week, Tacoma asked the Washington State Court of Appeals to review the ruling by Pierce County Superior Court Judge Helen G. Whitener. The judge found the city violated the state Public Records Act by deliberately withholding 11 records from the American Civil Liberties Union and three Tacoma plaintiffs.

The documents concerned the use of the surveillance device — known as a Stingray — which mimics a cell phone tower and compels all nearby devices — not just the target’s phone — to connect to it. That concerned the ACLU and other civil liberties or privacy-focused groups.

For violating the records law Whitener said June 25, Tacoma should pay $182,340, plus $115,530 for attorney fees and other costs.

“The penalty awarded in this case is an amount necessary to deter future misconduct when considering the city’s agency size and the facts of this case,” the judge wrote.

After reviewing the ruling, the city attorney’s office decided to appeal because the city “respectfully disagrees with the court’s application of law in this matter,” spokeswoman Maria Lee said.

The document requests were made after The News Tribune revealed in 2014 that the Tacoma Police Department had been using a cell site simulator for years.

In opposing the requests, the city argued in court that it already had sent documents to dozens of other requesters and shouldn’t have had to disclose the documents to yet another party.

“In fact,” the city told the court, “the local newspaper had already retrieved and publicized almost all of the documents at issue.”

In addition, the city often said it kept documents from public view because it had a signed nondisclosure agreement with the FBI.

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Spokeswoman Amy Roe said the ACLU and the other plaintiffs were disappointed in the city’s decision to appeal “because we think the judge got it right. In fact, we believe our clients are still entitled to the documents Tacoma police never produced.”

Those documents relate to how police use the device, ACLU attorneys have said.

The groups suing the city said they planned to use the $300,000 award to further police accountability and transparency in Tacoma.

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The legal action brought by the ACLU and the others was the third stingray-related lawsuit Tacoma has lost since 2017.

The city paid $50,000 plus undisclosed legal fees to a Seattle nonprofit for withholding an unredacted nondisclosure agreement regarding the use of the Stingray. The judge issued the maximum penalty, $100 per day.

Then, the court awarded $43,800 to serial records requester Arthur West — again because the city did not reveal the unredacted nondisclosure agreement between Tacoma police and the FBI.

Kate Martin: kmartin@thenewstribune.com, 253-597-8542
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