Legislators question sheriff on cell phone tracker

May 15, 2014

Members of the Erie County Legislature raised their privacy concerns over cell phone spying with Sheriff Timothy Howard on Thursday.

Howard admitted to the Legislature's Public Safety Committee that the Sheriff's Department has a device which is capable of locating a cellular phone. Howard says it is not used to listen to conversations and it does not store data.

Sheriff Timothy Howard went before the Legislature's Public Safety Committee on Thursday.
Credit Chris Caya/WBFO News

"It is not used to monitor conversations from a cellular phone, nor do we use the device to grab any text messages from those cellular phones. It's only used to locate the phone," Howard said in Legislature chambers at County Hall.

Howard, a Republican who won election to a second term last year, would not discuss the Sheriff Department's procedures or policies for using the technology, but he said its use is subject to review by federal and state courts.    

Following the hearing, Republican Committee Chair Ed Rath III said the sheriff did "a wonderful job" answering questions about the device.

"He is using this surveillance technology in a very laser-like fashion on one individual cell phone that has been identified, when he does use the technology," Rath said. "The sheriff is following all legal requirements and protocols when it comes to the utilization of this technology."

Democratic Legislator Patrick Burke says Howard answered his concerns, but without evidence. Burke says he plans to request judicial documents to confirm the Sheriff's comments.

"It was still, 'We have procedures, but we can't tell you what they are. We have policies, but we can't tell you what they are.'  But at least we've learned that the sheriff is not telling us that they do go through a judicial process, so now we'll be able to go look at those documents and ensure that that's the case," Burke said.

Burke says as representatives of the people, the Legislature does have a say in cell phone surveillance by law enforcement.