Detroit — Federal agents this week revealed they used a controversial cellphone snooping device to hunt for a low-level accused drug dealer in a case that illustrates the creeping use of a terror-fighting tool to solve everyday crimes.
The device was used by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to find and arrest Inkster resident Daiven Hollinshed late last month, according to federal search warrant records obtained by The Detroit News. The secret device, known as a Hailstorm or Stingray, masquerades as a cell tower and tricks nearby phones into providing location data and helped track Hollinshed to an Inkster home Sept. 20.
“(Hollinshed) answered the door and he asked how they had found him,” Assistant U.S. Attorney April Russo said during a Sept. 22 hearing in federal court in Detroit.
There is no indication agents told Hollinshed about the Stingray. Russo avoided mentioning the technology during a recent court hearing while chronicling a month-long manhunt.
The search warrant filing appears to be the first time federal investigators and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit have publicly acknowledged using the device since the Justice Department instituted sweeping new guidelines last year.
Hollinshed, 28, is being held without bond pending trial on two firearm charges that could send him to prison for at least five years.
An ATF spokesman did not respond to a message seeking comment Wednesday.
Hollinshed’s lawyer Cyril Hall was unaware ATF agents used the device until being told by The News.
“I’m shocked,” Hall said. “This is a guy accused of selling $5, $10 and $20 bags. This is low-level — as low-as-you-can-get — drug trafficking.”
Privacy and civil rights experts credited the Justice Department for being transparent about using the device at a time when the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and other law-enforcement agencies refuse to discuss how they use a technology that can collect data from innocent smartphone users.
While the Justice Department’s policy, implemented in September 2015, requires warrants to use the devices, there is no similar policy for local law-enforcement agencies.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 66 law-enforcement agencies in 23 states and the District of Columbia have Stingray devices. That list includes the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and Michigan State Police.
The numbers likely are higher because many agencies do not reveal buying or using Stingrays, according to the ACLU.
“This is an improvement over federal law enforcement’s former practices from a constitutional perspective,” said Nathan Wessler, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “If they are truly informing judges what they are doing, getting a probable cause warrant and disclosing it to the public and the defendant, it allows the judicial system to function and start to provide oversight, which is crucial.”
The Hailstorm technology from Florida-based defense contractor Harris Corp. is believed to be an upgrade of Stingray, a suitcase-sized contraption that is installed in cars and used to track nearby phones.
Harris sells the device to police agencies and requires them to sign nondisclosure statements. Oakland County, like other agencies, obtained Hailstorm using money from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant.
Michigan State Police has owned the device for about a decade, according to documents obtained by The News. The equipment, originally designed for military and intelligence agencies, was upgraded in 2013, and an internal memo indicates it was used two years ago on 128 cases ranging from homicide to burglary and fraud, but not terrorism.
The Hollinshed case dates to Aug. 8 when investigators spotted him allegedly dealing drugs in front of the Rodeway Inn & Suites on Michigan Avenue in Inkster.
Eight days later, investigators again saw Hollinshed allegedly dealing drugs and carrying what appeared to be a firearm, according to court records. Hollinshed is not allowed to possess a firearm because he was convicted of a breaking-and-entering felony in 2013.
Two days later, on Aug. 18, investigators obtained a warrant to search Hollinshed’s motel room and arrested the man on an outstanding traffic warrant after watching him allegedly dealing drugs in the motel’s parking lot, Russo said.
Investigators recovered a semi-automatic handgun, 31 bags of heroin and crack cocaine, cash and drug paraphernalia, Russo said.
Hollinshed was released while federal agents investigated the case. Prosecutors charged Hollinshed with gun-related crimes Aug. 29 and launched a manhunt.
“Law enforcement underwent a substantial effort to locate the defendant, going to all different lengths to find him and was not successful until just recently,” Russo said during a court hearing.
Agents set up surveillance at Hollinshed’s prior addresses and at the Inkster motel.
They called the mother of Hollinshed’s children, spoke to his parole officer and questioned informants.
They staked out his mother’s retirement home.
They staked out an acquaintance’s house.
“Detectives came to the hospital when his wife was having a baby,” Hollinshed’s lawyer Cyril Hall said. “I thought that was rather strange.”
Agents, however, never spotted Hollinshed.
The efforts paid off Sept. 6.
An informant told investigators Hollinshed was selling drugs at a different local hotel, a Budget Inn, Russo said.
On Sept. 12, agents learned Hollinshed’s phone number, which he was using to deal drugs, Russo said.
Behind the scenes, agents started drafting a search warrant application that included probable cause to use the Stingray device.
On Sept. 20, U.S. Magistrate Judge R. Steven Whalen approved the search warrant request.
Investigators found Hollinshed within hours at an undisclosed Inkster home.
“If agents know the phone number and want to find that phone, they drive around probing and pinging all the phones in the area to see who’s nearby,” Wessler said.
The warrant and affidavit outlining probable cause remains sealed in federal court and it is unclear what restrictions the magistrate imposed on using the device.
Under the Justice Department policy, all data from the cellphone must be deleted immediately after the device is located. Stingrays also cannot be used to collect emails, texts, contacts or images during an investigation.
There are exceptions, however, and search warrants are not required under urgent or exceptional circumstances.
“The concern about Stingrays being used in low-level drug investigations is legitimate,” said Shahid Buttar, director of grassroots advocacy for the nonprofit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. “These tools that were justified on the basis of catastrophic events are being used to address routine events. There is at least a bait-and-switch here.”
Detroit News Staff Writer Joel Kurth contributed.