For the first time ever a U.S. District Judge, William Pauley, discarded evidence obtained using the increasingly popular stingray program because the investigating agency did not have a warrant. William ruled that the defendant’s rights were violated when the DEA used the device to locate him in a Washington Heights, New York apartment.
Stingray, which has grown in popularity with law enforcement agencies, replicates cell towers to intercept signals and triangulate a location or monitor conversation. While in theory the device targets a specific cell phone, in practice it intercepts other signals in the area, essentially acting as a catch basin for any cellular communication in the area.
Saying, “Absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device,” the federal judge’s ruling set precedence saying that the Fourth Amendment requires police to obtain a warrant to use stingray.
Although this is believed to be the first federal ruling of its kind, earlier this year the Maryland Court of Special Appeals issued a similar opinion.
The case was State of Maryland v. Kerron Andrews. Andrews, a Baltimore man accused of attempted murder, was located and arrested inside of someone else’s home. His defense pressured the prosecution to disclose how they located him and eventually found out that the Baltimore police used “Hailstorm,” which is essentially Stingray by another name.
The Maryland court stated that police must obtain a warrant before using the technology and fully explain to the court what the device does and how it’s used.
Their statement said:
“We determine that cell phone users have an objectively reasonable explanation that their cell phones will not be used as real-time tracking devices through the direct and active interference of law enforcement. We hold, therefore, that the use of a cell site simulator, such as Hailstorm, by the government, requires a search warrant…”
California, Washington, Virginia, Minnesota, and Utah all now require a warrant before the technology is used, and these rulings may urge other state legislatures to follow suit.
These cases set precedence for the growing warrantless use of this technology. While it can understandably be used as a tool to fight crime, the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding its use opens of the door to abuse.