Prosecutor, sheriff’s office ask county for forensic phone tools

by Kate Shunney

Morgan County Prosecuting Attorney Dan James and top officers with the Morgan County Sheriff’s office asked County Commissioners on Wednesday to fund digital tools to help them investigate cases and pursue charges more efficiently.

Sheriff K.C. Bohrer told commissioners that “nearly every criminal case involves digital devices and phones” that need to be handled properly and in a timely way during investigations.

Bohrer said forensic work – the targeted download of information from a cell phone or computer – used to be done for Morgan County officers by members of the Eastern Panhandle Drug and Violent Crime Taskforce.

He said the volume of devices to be processed is just too big now, and sometimes devices will be held for 6-8 months to await processing.

That kind of delay is too difficult to work with, discouraged witnesses from cooperating by turning over the phones and can delay putting a stop to criminal activities.

James and Bohrer approached the county, asking for them to pay for cell phone download and data extraction software the Sheriff’s Department could use itself.

Prosecutor Dan James said recently he waited months for forensic phone information that could have been acted on immediately if it had been available.

“I wished I would have had it in a week or two – it had a ledger and list of all drug customers,” James said of the phone data.

“We can’t wait 6-8 months to get a phone back from forensics. It used to be primarily drug cases where it was relevant but now it’s more common to all kinds of cases,” he said.

If the forensic investigation has to be done faster, his office can use a private service, but it costs $4,000-6,000 per phone and that private company may have to be certified as an expert witness if the phone evidence is used in trial, said James.

James noted that phone data provides key information, like date stamps, GPS locations, photos, sometimes the speed a vehicle is moving.

“It’s just an absolute need,” he said of the forensic software.

Capt. Tim Stapleton, the Sheriff’s Department lead investigator, told the county that Cellebrite is the top forensic software being used by law enforcement.  The cost for the Cellebrite package would be $14,600 for the first year to equip, train and license the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department to use the software. Every year after, the Sheriff’s Department would pay $8,400 for an annual license to use the software.

“Most people will be more cooperative if they know they’re going to get their phone back in a few hours rather than six to eight months,” Capt. Stapleton said.

“My first reaction is to partner with another county,” said Commissioner Bill Clark in response to the proposal. “I certainly see the need.”

Chief Johnnie Walter noted that Morgan County would have to have its own license regardless, which is the bulk of the cost.

James said he would like the West Virginia State Police and town police forces to be involved in using the software.

“With the sheer volume now, we’re all moving in that direction,” said James.

Commissioner Joel Tuttle asked if there was any financial break for getting the software over multiple years. Capt. Stapleton said the price doesn’t change at all.

“If it’s a tool they can use to expedite things, I’m all for it,” said Tuttle.

Commissioners said if they were to use ARPA federal funds for the purchase, they would need multiple bids for the software.

“Cellebrite is recognized as the standard of this equipment,” noted Dan James.

County officials asked the Sheriff’s Department to seek out equivalent products and get bids, just to follow procurement processes.

Commissioners tabled the request until their meeting on July 17 to review added bids.