Tag Archives: marshals

Did U.S. Marshals Really Arrest a Houston Man for Unpaid Student Loans?

On February 15, Paul Aker appeared on Fox 26 Houston detailing his arrest at the hands of seven U.S. Marshals armed with automatic firearms. Aker told Fox 26 that he was arrested for not paying a $1,500 student loan he received in 1987 from Prairie View A&M University.

The arrest took place on February 18 at Aker’s home in Houston. “They grabbed me, they threw me down,” Aker told the NY Daily News. “Local PD is just standing there.”

Aker was arrested and taken to a federal court in downtown Houston where he said he was faced with a judge, a prosecutor, and a county clerk. Aker told Fox 26 that the prosecutor ended up being a debt collection lawyer.

Aker said he received a “lecture” from the judge about “stealing from the U.S. government.” When Aker asked why the Marshals came in combat gear with weapons drawn, he said he was told it was because he owns firearms.

“It was because they knew I was a registered gun owner. It’s out of control. Out of control. What if they had seen a gun on me? They would have shot me for $1,500 bucks.”

[RELATED: U.S. Students Participate in ‘Million Student March’ Over Debt, Free College]

The Daily News reported that Aker was ordered to pay $5,700 for the loan, including interest. He was also ordered to pay nearly $1,300 to cover the cost of his own arrest. Aker has until March 1, he said, or he would be arrested again.

Isiah Carey of Fox 26 also stated that the U.S. Marshals are planning to serve up to 1,500 warrants to Houstonians who have not repaid their loans.

Aker’s arrest became a viral story on Tuesday afternoon and left many people wondering why the federal government was using armed raids to collect on student debt. Although Aker told the NY Daily News and Fox 26 that he was not contacted once in 29 years about the loan, Yahoo Finance has discovered some discrepancies in his story. 

According to documents obtained by Yahoo, Aker was sued in November 2007 by the federal government for failing to pay more than $2,600 in unpaid federal student loan debt. Records from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas show that Aker, listed as Winford P. Aker in the complaint, failed to appear in court, leading the judge to rule against him and order him to pay the entire balance by April 17, 2007.

Yahoo reported that a statement from the U.S. Marshals Service claims that Aker repeatedly refused to show up in court after being contacted several times. Aker reportedly told the Marshals he would not appear in court. A few months later, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest and the U.S. Marshals carried it out.

Yahoo wrote, “So, yes, Aker was arrested, but not just because he owed a little student loan debt. He was arrested for disobeying a court order.”

If the Marshals did attempt to contact Aker, they may have been unable to do so because the court record shows a different address than the listing for a “Winford P. Aker” that Yahoo Finance found in the Houston area. The U.S. Marshals Service told Yahoo they made every effort to track him down, “including searching at numerous known addresses.”

Ultimately, the arrest was not made specifically for the failure to pay the student loan but for the failure to appear in court. Still, it seems troubling that a $1,500 debt could lead to an armed raid on one’s home. It’s highly troubling that the U.S. Marshals chose to come with guns simply because Aker was a registered gun owner.

What are your thoughts? At what point does a debt warrant an arrest? Is owning a firearm reason enough to bring armed federal agents to collect a debt?

Department of Justice to Reveal New Details Of ‘StingRay’ Cellphone Surveillance

The Department of Justice plans to begin revealing details on the use of Stingray cellphone tracking tools, according a new report from the Wall Street Journal.

Officials with the Justice Department told the WSJ that they have launched a review into how law-enforcement agencies use the controversial technology.

StingRays are the name of a brand of cell-site simulators, a tool which allows law enforcement to trick a phone into sending its cell signal (and associated data) to the device rather than a cell tower. This gives authorities the ability to gather location, numbers dialed, length of calls, and in newer models, the actual contents of conversations and texts.

Devlin Barrett, the WSJ reporter behind the story, tweeted that the internal review began before Attorney General Eric Holder left office. A DOJ spokesman stated that the department is, “examining its policies to ensure they reflect the Department’s continuing commitment to conducting its vital missions while according appropriate respect for privacy and civil liberties.”

The announcement from the DOJ comes as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) released thousands of pages of heavily-redacted documents related to Stingrays. The document dump came in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from MuckRock’s Alex Richardson. One of the redacted documents is titled “Cellphone Tracking for Dummies.”

Although the content of the documents is censored, the recipients of the communications indicate that the FBI has been passing on information on Stingrays to state and local departments around the country.

Details of how exactly the devices work remains shrouded in secrecy, but that trend seems to be changing as the public questions the use of these tools. In late March, a heavily redacted edition of a 2010 manual for the StingRay was released.

The manual was released through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests sent to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by The Blot Magazine. This marked the first public release of the user manual which covers the Harris Corporation’s StingRay, StingRay II, and Kingfish devices.

The manual provides a view into how the technology operates and highlights the level of secrecy Harris Corp, the manufacturer of the Stingray, and government agencies are employing. Past documents have shown that most police departments have been granting themselves authorization without first getting a warrant based on probable cause. When the departments do pursue a warrant through a judge, they often do not specifically mention the Stingray specifically but rather use vague and generic terms.

The promises of the DOJ and the document release from the FBI could hint at a more transparent policy towards the technology. However, not everyone is impressed. The American Civil Liberties Union writes:

“Federal law enforcement’s move toward using warrants for this invasive technology is welcome and long overdue, as is the promise of increased transparency. But major questions remain.

First, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department is slow-walking the move toward decreased secrecy around Stingrays because it doesn’t “want to reveal information that would give new ammunition to defense lawyers in prosecutions where warrants weren’t used.” If that is so, the promise of greater transparency is a sham. Law enforcement agencies have been violating the rights of defendants and non-suspects for years by failing to get warrants and then hiding the fact and details of Stingray use from defense attorneys and courts. Trying to insulate these violations from challenge by maintaining secrecy until pending cases have concluded will perpetuate the government’s outrageous conduct.”

While the federal government promises more accountability, several states are seeking to pass legislation that would require a clear process for the use of Stingrays and similar devices. On April 23, New York State Senator Michael Ranzenhofer became the latest representative to introduce a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a judicial order before deploying a “mobile phone surveillance device or system.”

For more information check out this Guide to Stingray Technology.