Fort Worth council wants more discussion of cell phone tracker

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by CASEY NORTON

WFAA

Posted on February 23, 2012 at 8:46 PM

FORT WORTH - Fort Worth City Council members tell News 8 they want a meeting with the police chief and the city attorney.

They have serious questions about a cell phone tracking device, and why police and city staff never mentioned the constitutional controversy it brings.

Council members at the mayor's state of the city address Thursday now admit they didn't know enough about what they were buying.

Since the purchase, the KingFish cell phone tracker has opened up all sorts of questions about privacy, whether police need a warrant to use it and why the city council bought it without a debate.

Sal Espino said his information did not mention anything about constitutional issues, and the papers did not raise any questions about when the device could be used.

"It was there on the agenda, worded in a way that it did not appear there would be much controversy over it," Espino said.

But there's controversy now.

In the council packet, police call the KingFish a tool for "developing probable cause." The ACLU told News 8 that phrase should have been a red flag for council members, because officers need probable cause before they start a search.

"I saw [News 8's] conversation with the mayor, and I think our legal department needs to talk with our police chief," Kathleen Hicks said. "There is some further debate that we need to have."

When asked if he wished there was more information in the council packet addressing the constitutional concerns of cell phone tracking, Frank Moss said, "Probably so." He went on to say that he wanted to schedule a conversation with the police chief.

Danny Scarth was the only council member who said he asked police about the KingFish before the vote.

"I can't tell you exactly who it was, but the conversation is what I told you," he said.

Scarth said police made guarantees, "That this will be used within the confines of the law. That privacy is paramount. That a search warrant will always be used - search warrant or a court order."

But the laws governing the KingFish are not clear.

The Supreme Court ruled in January GPS tracking needs a warrant, because it amounts to a search, but the decision did not address cell phone surveillance. That's why the ACLU and other privacy groups have concerns about the KingFish, StingRay, AmberJack and other devices made by Harris Corporation.

Council member Dennis Shingleton said he was not aware of the Supreme Court case or how it might affect electronic surveillance techniques.

"We have a significant amount of trust and conviction that the chief of police is using it for the benefit of crime prevention in our city," Shingleton said. "We [don't] have any reservations about the fact there is constitutional issues."

Council members say they trust Fort worth Police to protect privacy. But next time, trust will come after they ask questions about what comes with the little black box.

E-mail cnorton@wfaa.com

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