Secrecy around police surveillance equipment proves a case’s undoing

by Ellen Nakashima  |  published on February 23, 2015

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The case against Tadrae McKenzie looked like an easy win for prosecutors. He and two buddies robbed a small-time pot dealer of $130 worth of weed using BB guns. Under Florida law, that was robbery with a deadly weapon, with a sentence of at least four years in prison.

But before trial, his defense team detected investigators’ use of a secret surveillance tool, one that raises significant privacy concerns. In an unprecedented move, a state judge ordered the police to show the device — a cell-tower simulator sometimes called a StingRay — to the attorneys.

Rather than show the equipment, the state offered McKenzie a plea bargain.

Today, 20-year-old McKenzie is serving six months’ probation ­after pleading guilty to a second-degree misdemeanor. He got, as one civil liberties advocate said, the deal of the century. (The other two defendants also pleaded guilty and were sentenced to two years’ probation.)

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