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Court Rules Government’s Use of Stingray to Locate Suspect Was Unwarranted: eDiscovery Case Law

Court Denies Defendant’s Motion to Overrule Plaintiff’s Objections to Discovery Requests
 In United States v. Lambis, No. 15cr734 (S.D.N.Y. July 12, 2016), New York District Judge William H. Pauley, III granted the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained by law enforcement agents in connection with a search of his apartment because the apartment was located via the use of a “Stingray” cell-site simulator to identify the location of the defendant’s phone without a warrant.

Case Background

In 2015, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) was conducting an investigation into an international drug-trafficking organization and sought a warrant for pen register information (record from the service provider of the telephone numbers dialed from a specific phone) and cell site location information (“CSLI”) for a target cell phone as part of that investigation. CSLI allows the target phone’s location to be approximated by providing a record of “pings” sent to cell sites by a target cell phone to approximate where the phone has been used.  Using CSLI, DEA agents were able to determine that the target cell phone was located in the general vicinity of “the Washington Heights area by 177th and Broadway.”

However, this CSLI was not precise enough to identify the specific apartment building, much less the specific unit in the building.  To isolate the location more precisely, the DEA deployed a technician with a cell site simulator (a device known as a “Stingray” that locates cell phones by mimicking the service provider’s cell tower and forcing cell phones to transmit “pings” to the simulator) to the intersection of 177th Street and Broadway.  Using the “Stingray”, the DEA technician was able to locate the building and then the unit where the defendant was located.  That same evening, DEA agents knocked on the defendant’s door and obtained consent from his father to enter the apartment, then obtained consent from the defendant to enter his bedroom where they recovered narcotics, three digital scales, empty zip lock bags, and other drug paraphernalia.  The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence.

Judge’s Ruling

Noting that a “Fourth Amendment search occurs when the government violates a subjective expectation of privacy that society recognizes as reasonable”, Judge Pauley referenced Kyllo v. United States, where Government agents used a thermal-imaging device to detect infrared radiation emanating from a home.  In that case, the Court held that “[w]here . . . 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 then stated “Here, as in Kyllo, the DEA’s use of the cell-site simulator to locate Lambis’s apartment was an unreasonable search because the ‘pings’ from Lambis’s cell phone to the nearest cell site were not readily available ‘to anyone who wanted to look’ without the use of a cell-site simulator.”  He also stated this:

“Absent a search warrant, the Government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device. Perhaps recognizing this, the Department of Justice changed its internal policies, and now requires government agents to obtain a warrant before utilizing a cellsite simulator.”

As a result, Judge Pauley granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence that was obtained by the search, even though the defendant’s father and the defendant had given consent to the search and access.

So, what do you think?  Should a warrant be required for “Stingray” devices?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Thanks to Sharon Nelson at Ride the Lightning for the tip!

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