HELENA – The ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit against Cascade County for failing to respond to a request for information on the use of racial profiling and force policies and files on license plate readers which can be used to track a driver’s location.
According to a statement, the ACLU sent the first Freedom of Information Act request for the cell site simulators on March 24, 2016. They followed up on April 12, 2016 asking for the Cascade County Sheriff's Office policies on force and racial profiling to make the information available on the ACLU website for public use.
The office didn’t respond to either request, the lawsuit alleges.
Cascade County Sheriff Bob Edwards said on Wednesday he wasn't aware a lawsuit had been filed and would need to do some research before commenting.
Jim Taylor, legal director for ACLU Montana, said the lawsuit was filed on Wednesday and the sheriff's office hadn't been served yet. Taylor said the ACLU contacted the sheriff's office through mail each time and never received a response.
Commonly called Sting-Ray devices, the cell site simulators mimic cellphone towers and force a phone to allow police to see its location as well as identifying information. Automatic license plate readers gather information from a plate’s location and send it to a regional sharing system where it’s stored for an unregulated amount of time.
The ACLU said this information allows police to essentially track a person’s movements.
Taylor said the ACLU has tried to work with agencies that have asked for additional time to meet its requests but is unwilling to continue waiting for agencies that choose not to respond. He said the ACLU plans to also sue the other agencies that haven’t respond to the same request.
There are 13 other jurisdictions that didn't respond to either request and 24 that only responded to one, Taylor said. There were several who gave incomplete or problematic responses. He declined to specify which jurisdictions failed to respond.
When asked why the ACLU started with Cascade County, Taylor said it was the first major jurisdiction on the list alphabetically.
"It's rare that we send a FOIA and we don't get anything back at all. Agencies have an obligation under state law to respond," he said. "It will cost the ones who don't financially."
While the lawsuit doesn't seek damages, it asks for compliance and legal fees.