ROCKVILLE – The Montgomery County Police Department used cell-site simulators in approximately 80 cases last year, 30 percent of which came from homicide cases, according to new statistics released Wednesday.
The new statistics came four days after the state House Judiciary Committee voted against House Bill 904, which would place limits on how law enforcement officials may use cell site simulators.
Capt. Paul Liquorie, the director of the special investigations division for the County Police Department, explained the majority of the times last year in which County Police used the “Stingray” technology that mimics cellphone towers involved in criminal cases.
It tracks electronic serial numbers for cellphones, which are unique identification numbers differing from phone numbers.
In order to detect an electronic serial number, Liquorie said law enforcement officials first must obtain a court order with the cellphone number of a suspect.
A judge then allows the release of the electronic serial number. Law enforcement officials then use cell-site simulators to scan an area for that electronic serial number.
Electronic signatures of other phones that detect the signature are grabbed and immediately released, according to Liquorie.
“We’re not storing anybody else’s number. We’re not storing anybody else’s data,” said Liquorie. “Again, nothing is stored in the system.”
However, the court order with the information about the cellphone number and electronic serial number becomes part of a case file.
“Once we’ve obtained it in writing, I don’t know that it necessarily goes away. It’s part of the case,” said Liquorie.
Earlier this month in Annapolis, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Nathan Freed Wessler said the chief concerns for the technology include the cell site simulators scooping up data from bystanders. The technology can be used in homes and should only be used with “probable cause.”
“Law enforcement have been using these for years, but they have not told judges what they’re doing,” said Sara Love of the ACLU of Maryland.
County police usually obtain court orders before using the cell-site simulators, according to Liquorie, though a judge can issue one retroactively for cases requiring immediate action.
Judges have not refused to issue court order requests to the police seeking permission to use the cell-site simulators.
“I don’t believe there’s ever been a case that way,” said Liquorie.
Police also use cell-site simulators to look for “critically missing people,” such as people with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, autism and some other disabilities as well as minors who don’t return home and suicidal people.
“So we’re often doing those obviously because those people are in need,” said Liquorie.
In the criminal cases, police used the technology approximately 24 times to track down homicide suspects, according to Liquorie.
Suspected kidnappings made up three cases. Other instances of use included armed robberies and first-degree assaults, such as shootings, stabbings, assaults with serious bodily injury or the threat of such an assault.
Liquorie did not provide a statistical breakdown for each time the cell-site simulator was used in the County. He also said he did not know when the first time local police used it, explaining he only became director of his division in October.
“We use it to go after our worst criminals,” said Liquorie.
While Liquorie did not divulge the exact threshold for when the technology is used, he explained that police use it for violent felonies and not to track down someone suspected of stealing a candy bar.
Police also have to obtain search warrants to browse data in confiscated cellphones.
“You can imagine the wide range of cases we use that on,” said Liquorie, saying those searches help with cases running the gamut from child pornography to homicides.