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Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard told legislators Thursday that it is solely up to the courts – not them – to determine how he may use cellphone surveillance equipment to track persons of interest.

Howard told the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee that the Stingray surveillance device the office has owned since 2008 is used only for tracking a person’s movements, not for snooping into the content of phone communications.

But beyond that, he was polite but defiant in refusing to answer questions about the equipment, telling legislators, in essence, that it’s not their business.

“With no disrespect to this honorable body … the specific use of the device should be left to the monitoring of the courts and not to the Legislature or to the media,” he said.

Dressed in an olive green suit instead of his usual sheriff’s uniform, Howard said, “Anything we do with the device is subject to review by the federal or state courts, including by our own County Court, and that’s where it should be reviewed.”

Thursday’s forum ostensibly was called to determine the capabilities of the surveillance equipment and any safeguards in place to curb potential misuse. It was convened after concerns were raised last week by Democratic Legislator Patrick B. Burke of Buffalo that the equipment can, within a one-mile radius, capture data from targeted cellphones even when they’re not in use.

Yet lawmakers got few answers from Howard, who instead made his point by challenging them to prove that they don’t snoop on their neighbors.

When Legislator Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg, asked about the scope of the device’s capabilities, Howard said it was beyond his knowledge and that all he could address is how the device is used by his office.

When Legislator Peter J. Savage III, D-Buffalo, asked how the tracking equipment was more expedient than asking cellphone providers for information on the location of a specific mobile device, Howard again demurred.

“I think to answer that question would probably be to educate the public, including the criminal members of the public, in how to avoid the use or the efficiency of the device, so I respectfully will not answer,” he replied.

The surveillance equipment was first requested by the county’s Department of Emergency Services in August 2008 under then-County Executive Chris Collins. The Legislature at that time unanimously authorized the use of a $283,043 terrorism prevention grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to pay for the device.

Howard said only six individuals in the Sheriff’s Office are trained and authorized to use the equipment. Other than in emergency situations – such as locating a suicidal person or someone in imminent danger – Howard said use of the device in criminal investigations is always part of a judicial review.

“Our utilization of the device does not eavesdrop on cell- phones or texting equipment, and on the occasions in which that’s done, it’s done with an entirely different type of eavesdropping order,” Howard said.

When Burke asked how often the device has been used, Howard again declined to answer.

“It’s my hope that, at some point in time, some common sense will take over and the realization would be that the more time we spend educating the public (about) this device, the more time we’re educating the criminal public on how to avoid it,” Howard said.

“I would simply suggest this: Could any of you that own something as simple as a pair of binoculars prove to anyone else that you don’t use those binoculars to look into your neighbor’s windows? Obviously, you can’t prove what you don’t do,” he added.

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com