After twice coming away with nothing, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek received approval Tuesday to funding for a controversial tracking device that can pinpoint cell phone locations even when they're not being used.

The Hennepin County Board approved Stanek's request to seek $426,150 in a federal grant for the equipment, known as the KingFish.

The device is part of a $3.9 million federal request from Stanek for communications, dispatch and training equipment. The request had been tabled twice by commissioners, some of whom had expressed concerns about whether it might lead to illegal searches.

The equipment would be used by the sheriff's investigations bureau, according to County Board documents. "The system acts as a mobile wireless phone tower and has the capability to find, track and/or deny mobile phone service," the documents state.

The tracking device can receive information from all cell phones that are on, even if they are not being used.

One scenario given by law enforcement for using the KingFish is tracking abduction victims via their cell phones.

No radius was given Tuesday for the device's coverage area. It also appears that the device cannot listen in on cell phone conversations.

Delayed gratification

Earlier this month the County Board delayed a decision on the grant submission, with opponents questioning not only potential legal concerns but also the need for the system.

On Tuesday, as a deadline for applying for the funds neared, the board voted 5-1 to approve the grant application to the federal government. Only Board Chairman Mike Opat retained his opposition.

"I still think this is a stretch," Opat said. "There are issues that a number of us have and there are questions about when it will be used."

Before the vote, Opat offered an amendment requiring that future purchases of software and technology to keep the system going be brought before the board for approval. That amendment passed 6-0.

Inspector Kip Carver told the Board prior to the vote that the department is committed to using "best practices" in using the system and that it will seek opinions from the Hennepin County attorney's office and draw up guidelines on when and how the system will be used.

"I think it will be helpful to know what all of the standards are," said Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who earlier this month voted to table the matter.

On Tuesday, Dorfman voted to seek funding for the project. "I think it will be helpful for law enforcement all over Hennepin County," she said.

Stanek has not publicly commented on the system. After Tuesday's vote, Chief Deputy Mike Carlson said in an e-mail statement: "We are pleased that the Board decided to support this tool for law enforcement."

Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280