BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard went before lawmakers Thursday to address their concerns over cell phone surveillance equipment owned by the agency.
The appearance was prompted by 2 On Your Side's months-long investigation looking into the #cellphonespying.
Howard refused to answer many of the questions, saying it could tip off the "criminal element." He would not elaborate.
The sheriff insisted the devices, which are sold under the names StingRay and KingFish, are only used to find a target device and do not "eavesdrop on cell phones or texting equipment."
However, Howard's statements were at odds with an affidavit from an FBI supervisor in a high-profile national case involving a StingRay. The agent said the machines do collect information from all nearby phones, "including those of innocent, non-target devices." That's why the FBI has a policy to erase all data from the machines after each use.
Sheriff Howard insisted his officers do not gather any information from non-target phones, while seemingly leaving open the possibility that they could.
"If you want to ask what the device is capable of, that's beyond my knowledge," Sheriff Howard said.
Howard said the machines are used under "judicial review" in all criminal matters. That seemed to satisfy most lawmakers. However, that's not the full picture. Howard admitted to 2 On Your Side that he does not get search warrants. Instead, the Sheriff's Office gets lower-level court orders, which require much less judicial oversight.
The Sheriff's Office refuses to hand over the court orders, which might explain their legal rationale and how open they're being with judges in order to get the permission to use the devices.
Either way, the sheriff said it's for the courts to look into, and not lawmakers.
"With no disrespect to this honorable body, the actual use of the device ... (and) the specific use of the device should be left to the monitoring of the courts and not to the legislature or to the media," Howard said.
Lawmakers seemed split along party lines, with Democrats wanting to ask more questions and Republicans saying the Sheriff addressed their concerns.
"I think the residents can all rest assured now that the cell phone surveillance technology is properly being used and that our rights are not being violated," Legislator Ed Rath, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said. "We have to believe our sheriff. We have to rest assured that he's doing everything within the parameters of the law, and I think that we need to move on from this issue now."
Legislators Patrick Burke and Peter Savage, both Democrats, said the Sheriff still has a lot to answer.
"I think there were obviously a number of questions that I think we can certainly get further amplification on," Savage said.
"There are still a lot of questions that weren't factually answered," Burke added. "We wanted actual evidence instead of his word. I'm not saying he's lying, but we need to know that these procedures are in place."
John Curr with the New York Civil Liberties Union was in the audience at the committee meeting. He was stunned by the Sheriff's refusal to answer all the questions.
"This is a county legislature, a county law enforcement matter," Curr said. "We're not talking to the director of the NSA."