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Federal Lawsuit Alleges Chicago Police Illegally Spied On Activists, Residents With Stingray Surveillance

A federal lawsuit against Chicago police alleges officers employed cell site simulators or Stingray spying devices in violation of the First Amendment rights of innocent citizens during a “Reclaim Martin Luther King Jr. Day” action on January 15, 2015.

Chicago-based organizations, activists, and residents came together for a protest and march on the west side of Chicago. The intent was to use the holiday to remember parts of King’s legacy often ignored by politicians and the media. Activists also sought to link the holiday to issues of police brutality.

Jerry Boyle, a National Lawyers Guild legal observer frequently at demonstrations in Chicago, claims police used a “cell site simulator to search” his private cell phone and the cell phone of nearby “protesters, bystanders, and Chicago residents” at about 8 pm.

According to the filed lawsuit [PDF], police “deployed the cell site simulator in the immediate vicinity of private homes, private offices, juvenile courts, medical facilities, and at least one church, as well as protesters engaging in protected political speech.” Police lacked a “warrant or probable cause to search and seize the private cell phones” of Boyle or any other person. The surveillance was not by mistake but rather the result of a clear policy.

“The people of Chicago should be able to exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly without being spied upon by police,” Boyle declared. “Government spying on its citizens without appropriate judicial oversight is inconsistent with the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Boyle seeks to have the lawsuit certified as a class action lawsuit. One class of individuals is anyone the Chicago police unconstitutionally spied upon between January 12, 2015, and the present day.  A “subclass” is anyone who was targeted by police because they were at a political demonstration.

Matt Topic, an attorney with Loevy & Loevy Attorneys At Law, who is representing Boyle, insisted, “Any surveillance of political groups is particularly troubling.” He added, “But there is no dispute that even when CPD has a valid basis to track a legitimate suspect, the technology results in a search of every other phone in the area to find the suspect.

“This is a violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent bystanders every time it is used,” Topic argued.

Chicago police closely monitored the actions of protest groups after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Police officials also outlined plans to deploy undercover cops to spy on protests organized by Black Youth Project 100 and other church groups in 2015, one month before video of police killing Laquan McDonald was released.

Journalist Mick Dumke, who reported on the spying plans, wrote, “Over the past seven years, the police have spied on anti-Olympics protesters, the Service Employees International Union, critics of the visiting Chinese premier, the Occupy movement, and NATO Summit demonstrators.”

“In each case, members of the groups being investigated had spoken out against City Hall or its allies,” Dumke added.

The filed complaint suggests the city of Chicago maintains a policy of employing Stingray devices to “trespass upon, search, and seize personal information” of cell phones without a warrant or probable cause.

It asserts the city fails to hold police accountable for violating the rights of citizens. The city is responsible for any misconduct because it does not “adequately train and supervise” officers, who operate the surveillance equipment.

Craig Futterman, another attorney who represents Boyle, stated, “The Chicago Police Department can’t give its officers weapons that have the power to search and seize our most personal information without any instructions about how to use them,” said Craig Futterman, a Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School and one of the lawyers representing Mr. Boyle. “That’s like giving officers guns and telling them to go get the bad guys, without even teaching them how to shoot.

“We’ve recently seen how this lack of surveillance oversight has played out at the NSA, where employees abused surveillance tools to spy on their spouses,” Futterman added.

The lawsuit is one of the first civil lawsuits to be filed in a federal court against police for their use of Stingray technology.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."