Prosecutors in St. Louis, Missouri, have let four robbery suspects go free instead of explaining law enforcement’s use of a ‘stingray’ device in court proceedings.

The stingray devices, also known as cell-site simulators, pretend to be a cell phone tower. Phones nearby connect to the device rather than the real phone towers, allowing police to intercept calls without the use of a warrant.

The devices are also controversial because they are indiscriminate. Any passerby, whether law abiding or otherwise, has their phone tapped and data stolen.

The St. Louis case is another instance where prosecutors have preferred to drop charges instead of fully disclosing how the devices work in the real world. Last year, prosecutors in Baltimore did the same thing during another robbery trial.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, this month’s dismissal came just one day before a St. Louis police officer was to be deposed in the robbery case.

Neither the office of Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce nor the office of Megan Beesley, a public defender involved in the case, immediately responded to a request for comment over the weekend. The St. Louis Police Department also did not respond to a request for comment.

The latest report raises troubling questions about the techniques used by increasingly large and sophisticated police forces around the country. The trend, known as paramilitary policing, sees police departments outfitted with military style equipment, including cutting edge electronic warfare devices like the stingray. Given the large investments and ‘cool factor’ of the new gear police face pressure to use it, even though such use may violate law or be unwarranted.

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