Stingray Roundup: Courts Requiring Warrants for Secret Cell Phone Tracking

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on September 25, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

There's little doubt that police will use the latest and greatest technology to track down suspected criminals. One such technology is a cell-site simulator -- often referred to as a Stingray, based on a leading brand.

There's also little doubt that law enforcement tends to use these technologies first, and then worry about whether it was legal later. And Stingray use has become quite controversial, due to its widespread use and later questions regarding its legality. Here's a look at Stingray technology and some recent court rulings on the matter.

How It Works

In essence, a Stingray imitates a cell phone tower, transmitting cellular signals. Because cell phones are designed to locate and connect with the strongest cell phone tower, they will locate and connect to the Stingray. Law enforcement can limit the cellular transmissions to a target phone, then, once the Stingray is communicating with only the target phone, officers can follow the signal and direction of the target phone until they locate it. The question has become whether these connections constitute a search under the Constitution, and therefore whether law enforcement needs a warrant to use a Stingray device.

How Courts Have Ruled

State Courts

Last year, Maryland joined California, Minnesota, Utah, Virginia, and Washington in requiring warrants for Stingray use. Under the ruling officers must also fully explain what exactly the device does and how it is and will be used to the court.

Federal District Courts

A U.S. District Court judge in Manhattan also ruled the Drug Enforcement Administration violated the Fourth Amendment by using a stingray without a warrant, writing, "Absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen's cell phone into a tracking device."

Federal Circuit Courts

Last year, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals sidestepped the issue a bit: while not saying a warrant was required for Stingray use specifically, the court instead ruled that a warrant the police had for gaining similar information from the cell service provider also covered use of a Stingray. The D.C. Circuit was a little more forceful last week, holding that "the government violated the Fourth Amendment when it deployed the cell-site simulator against [a defendant] without first obtaining a warrant based on probable cause."

And while the FBI had asserted that it does not need a warrant to use Stingray devices, the Department of Homeland Security says it will obtain them before use.

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