SPRINGFIELD, Mo -- No, the Springfield Police Department does not have a device that can track cellphones and collect their call data.
But they can borrow one.
An affidavit filed in federal court disclosed that a cell-site simulator - also known as a "stingray" - was used during a 2017 investigation into a Springfield heroin ring.
The information collected by stingrays can help police solve crimes, but cell-site simulators also suck up the cellphone data of people near the target - and who have no connection to the criminal investigation.
A Springfield police spokeswoman said officers "very rarely" use the cell-site simulator, which belongs to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
A DEA spokesman would neither confirm nor deny a stingray had been used in Springfield, saying he would not discuss investigative tactics.
Court documents show a cell-site simulator was used at least four times on April 13, 2017, in Springfield, while investigators were conducting surveillance on Jovan Denson.
The 39-year-old Springfield man allegedly led a 12-person operation that brought pounds of heroin into Springfield.
Authorities say they arrested Denson at a traffic stop on May 17 and seized $12,000.
That night, they raided Denson's apartment and found a heroin cutting station set up in the kitchen and a pound of a hard, gray substance containing heroin in the bushes outside the apartment.
The arrest came after months of investigations, involving physical surveillance, controlled buys, wiretaps and, eventually, the cell-site simulator, court records show.
In December 2016, for instance, a Springfield police officer observed a drug deal in the parking lot of a West Kearney car wash, where documents say Denson handed a confidential informant 10 grams of heroin in exchange for a "stack" - $1,000.
Documents say Denson sold heroin to an informant three other times and was using four different phone numbers - with area codes from Kansas, Montana and Illinois.
Those phones would be part of a wiretap that would implicate more people in the heroin distribution ring, court documents say.
Midway through April, police tracked Denson as he moved throughout Springfield, documents say, observing him at a trade school, a breakfast restaurant, his home and a hotel.
Information from the cellphones of other people in those locations - like incoming and outgoing calls and the date, time and duration of those calls - would have been intercepted by the device, too.
Police say they used the cell-site simulator - a device that can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars - to collect data at each site.
The Department of Justice issued new guidelines in 2015 about the use of cell-site simulators to enhance transparency and increase privacy protections. The guidelines require federal investigators to obtain search warrants before using a cell-simulator in most cases.
The News-Leader could find no such warrant for the cell-site simulator used in April, though it's possible the search warrant is still sealed.
Less than two weeks after the cell-site simulator was used, investigators said they seized 1.8 pounds of heroin from a woman who was believed to be bringing heroin to Denson.
USA Today contributed to this report.
(Story shared by Springfield News-Leader. Read the original article here.)
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