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.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Mar 2017 @ 10:10pm

    Twilight zone

    I feel that I'm living in the twilight zone. Here I was, all happy jack, thinking "government is to serve the source of rightful power, the people."

    Color me shocked to discover the true purpose of power (as has been twisted around) is to serve itself.

    Somewhere between copyrighted or secret laws and a system so open that those investigated can destroy evidence before it is found is a place were we should be striving to live. I should think that is screamingly obvious, but I guess not to judge by those entrusted with power.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Cephei, 16 Mar 2017 @ 5:14am

    Suck it up.

    I imagine there more than a few Tacoma citizens that don't like their tax dollars being spent this way. I also imagine they know enough about police retaliation to keep their mouths shut and not complain.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 16 Mar 2017 @ 6:36am

    Were the responsible for the excessive redacting punished somehow? Did they lose their jobs or took a financial loss? Because $50k is a drop in the ocean of the agency budget and it doesn't hurt anywhere on those in charge. So yeah, unless this takes form of a real punishment to those in charge or costs the reelection of a few politicians nothing is going to change.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 16 Mar 2017 @ 6:49am


      Nonsense, why some of those involved, assuming they're elected officials, might not be re-elected! What more punishment could they possibly, reasonably face than that?

      I mean really, how unreasonable would it be to hold those personally involved personally responsible? Everyone knows that the second you're elected you lose all ability to choose your own actions and words, and are limited to only doing/saying what the public tells and/or allows you to do.

      As such if they were overzealous in their redaction efforts it was the public that decided on that course of action, and it's only proper that the public be the ones to pay, not the poor workers who had literally no say in the matter, even as they carried out the will of the public.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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