StingRays: Federal District Court Ruling on Warrantless Use of Locator Devices

StingRay Cell Phone Locator - Law Offices of Hope C. Lefeber

Technology is evolving faster than ever before, with new applications in every area of life, including law enforcement. I wrote back in January about police use of GPS devices to track suspects. Often, the law struggles to keep up with technological developments, and courts need to step in to determine if uses of novel technology are lawful.

Cell-site simulators, with names like "StingRay," "TriggerFish," or "Hailstorm," pick up the "pings" emitted by cell-phones. These signals, which would ordinarily go to the nearest cell phone tower, enable a user of a cell-site simulator to pinpoint a cell phone user's precise location.

In July 2016, the U.S District Court for the Southern District of New York weighed in on the warrantless use of cell-site simulators to locate criminal suspects—the first federal court to do so. The ruling by Judge Wiliam Pauley is a blow to law enforcement agencies that would use these devices to, in effect, turn a suspect's own cell phone into a tracking device without a warrant to do so.

The Facts and Ruling in United States v. Lambis

The case of United States v. Lambis involved the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA had gotten a warrant allowing them to seek cell phone records for a particular cell phone and cell site location records, which documented the "pings" from the phone to cell towers.

This information allowed DEA agents to locate the general area in which their suspect resided, but was not specific enough to allow them to pinpoint his exact location. The agents then used a cell-site simulator, which allowed them to locate not only the suspect's building, but his apartment. The suspect's father admitted the agents to the apartment and Lambis allowed them to search his bedroom, where they found and seized about a kilo of heroin, numerous cell phones, and drug paraphernalia.

Lambis' attorney filed a motion to suppress this evidence. Judge Pauley ruled that the use of the cell-site simulator, without a warrant allowing its use, violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

In making this ruling, the judge referred to Kyllo v. United States, a 2001 case in which the Supreme Court held that the use of a thermal imaging device to sense infrared radiation coming from a home constituted a "search." In that case, the court explained, "where the government uses a device that is not in general public use, to explore details of the home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a 'search' and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant."

Judge Pauley also relied on the reasoning in the 1984 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Karo, in which the court declared that monitoring of a beeper in a private home was a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

What Lambis Means for Individuals Suspected of Federal Crimes

The Lambis decision is a U.S. District Court case. While other federal district courts are not required to follow Lambis in their own rulings, they likely will, since this is the first case at the federal level to address the use of cell-site simulators. The court's recognition in Lambis that StingRay technology infringes on the privacy of citizens is, at a minimum, a step in the right direction. And under the exclusionary rule, evidence from warrantless searches like the one in Lambis cannot be used against defendants.

If you have been charged with a federal crime and are looking for a tough defense lawyer, please contact the Law Offices of Hope Lefeber for a free initial consultation. I have over 30 years of experience defending clients from across the Philadelphia area and am ready to fight for you too.