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Can the police use a stingray to track the location of my cell phone?


A stingray is not just a fish that glides around the ocean floor with a long tail. It's also a shorthand term for an IMSI catcher, which simulates a cellphone tower to trick nearby mobile devices (like your cellphone) into connecting with them, thereby revealing their location. A stingray can see and record a device's unique ID number and traffic data, as well as information that points to it's location. By moving a stingray around, the police can triangulate a device's location with greater precision than is possible using data obtained from a carrier's fixed tower location. And yes, the police in Florida can and do use this controversial surveillance tool to track your cell phone. I have seen it done as a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer.

Can't the police just put a tracking device on your car to see where you go ? Not without a search warrant, they can't. The U.S. Supreme Court, in United States v. Jones, held that affixing a GPS device to a car constitutes a search, for which a warrant must be obtained. In Jones, the police actually did obtain a warrant allowing them to place a GPS tracking device on the underside of Jones' car, but the warrant had expired. The police left the device in place for weeks (after the warrant expired) and it gave them information that ultimately led to the discovery of incriminating evidence of drug trafficking. Jones was convicted, but appealed on the grounds that but for the illegal tracking device, the police would not have discovered the incriminating evidence. The court agreed with Jones and his conviction was overturned.

The Jones case had quite an impact. According to the FBI's general counsel, the agency was forced to turn off about 3,000 GPS devices that had been placed on automobiles without warrants. But now, the police have found another way to track you and gather information (secretly) in the form of a stingray. The bigger question is whether long term remote monitoring violates a person's reasonable expectation of privacy. While the use of stingrays is not a physical intrusion into your car, home or personal property, should the government or police be allowed to remotely track your whereabouts by monitoring your cell phone's movements without first getting a search warrant? Put another way, do people have a reasonable expectation of privacy as to their movements and location - even when the location is public?

If you've learned anything by now by reading my posts, it's that the cops hate going to court and getting search warrants. They would rather operate on suspicion and hunches. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently learned that Florida detectives obtain permission to use stingrays simply by filing applications with the courts under Florida's "trap and trace" statute instead of obtaining probable cause search warrants. Trap and trace orders generally are used to collect information from phone companies about telephone numbers received and called by a specific account. A stingray, however, can track the location of cell phones, including private spaces.

Recently, the Tallahassee police department revealed it had used stingrays at least 200 times since 2010 without telling any judge because the device's manufacturer made the police department sign a non-disclosure agreement that the police claim prevented them from disclosing use of the device to the courts. The ACLU has filed numerous records requests with police departments around the country in an effort to uncover how often the devices are used and how often courts are told about them. In Sarasota, Florida, after filing just such a request, the U.S. Marshalls Service seized the documents before the police could release them to the ACLU, claiming, incredibly, that they owned the police records regarding stingrays. The Marshalls service deputized a Sarasota detective and then claimed the documents were federal property. Then, a Marshall from it's Tampa office seized the records and moved them to an undisclosed location.

Lesson Learned:

Do you think the federal government would go to all this trouble to keep the knowledge of the use of stingrays from the public if the police and FBI weren't using them effectively every day all over the State of Florida? As the law currently stands, the police are not required to get search warrants for stingrays... and they want to keep it that way. By secretly tracking your cellphone, the police can secretly track and monitor you and all your movements (who goes anywhere today without their cellphone?)

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