City Of Tacoma To Pay $50,000 To Privacy Activist For Over-Redacting FBI's Stingray Non-Disclosure Agreement
from the fines-set-to-'MAX' dept
In the fall of 2015, privacy activist Phil Mocek and the Center for Open Policing sued the city of Tacoma for its response to a request for Stingray documents. The documents Mocek obtained were heavily-redacted, despite there being several mostly-unredacted versions of the FBI’s Stingray non-disclosure agreement already in public circulation.
(This would be the standard NDA the FBI appends to every Stingray purchase by local law enforcement agencies — one that says all public records requests should be forwarded to the feds and encourages locals to toss cases rather than expose Stingray use. It’s also the same contract the FBI was shocked to hear agencies were complying with after signing on the dotted line to take ownership of their new cell tower spoofers.)
The lawsuit was filed under the state’s open records law, with Mocek challenging the Tacoma PD’s use of the “investigative records” exemption to withhold significant amounts of a mostly bog-standard nondisclosure agreement. As was noted back then, the continued withholding of this information could become costly (for taxpayers): the state’s public records law allows for fines of $500/day for violations.
The court has spoken and the Tacoma PD’s excessive secrecy is indeed going to cost residents a chunk of change.
The city of Tacoma will pay a $50,000 fine as well as legal fees for violating the Public Records Act by withholding most of a nondisclosure agreement it signed to obtain cellphone surveillance equipment commonly known as a Stingray.
In an order signed Friday, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson said the city’s redactions violated state law.
He ordered Tacoma to pay $100 a day for every day the city “wrongfully withheld the unredacted NDA from June 21, 2014, until November 3, 2015, when the city provided this record to plaintiffs,” a penalty period of 500 days. The penalty is the maximum allowable under state law.
The judge determined the exemption cited was improper and withholding large amounts of contractual language served no conceivable law enforcement purpose. The city blamed the FBI for its lavish deployment of black toner. Presumably, the FBI will push back, stating it expects no one to uphold the terms of an agreement it forces them to sign before they can acquire the devices.
This unjustified secrecy is going to hurt the city (and its taxpaying residents) a few more times. The Tacoma New Times points out there are several pending lawsuits dealing with the same Stingray documents, including one filed by the ACLU. The city says it won’t seek reimbursement from the federal government for fines and fees, but maybe it should, especially if it’s going to blame the FBI for the Tacoma PD’s secrecy. This actually sounds like a “good faith” attempt to respect the terms of its agreement with the FBI. The FBI got the secrecy it wanted — at least temporarily. The least it can do is offer to cover the damages of the NDA it says everyone must sign, but apparently doesn’t expect anyone to follow.