A federal judge in New York on Tuesday ruled that law enforcement officers need a warrant before using a device that mimics cellphone towers to help track a person’s mobile phone.
Observers said the ruling was the first of its kind in federal court. But it is unclear how important the precedent will be since the government has already changed its policy to require warrants going forward.
Judge William Pauley on Tuesday threw out drug evidence gathered from a person’s home after the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) used a cell-site simulator to track and pinpoint the precise location of the suspect's mobile phone.
The devices, commonly known as StingRays, trick mobile phones into sending their signal to the device instead of a cell tower. Law enforcement can use the subsequent “pings” to pinpoint the nearly precise location of a mobile phone.
“Absent a search warrant, the Government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device,” the judge wrote in his opinion. “Perhaps recognizing this, the Department of Justice changed its internal policies, and now requires government agents to obtain a warrant before utilizing a cell-site simulator.”
The new Justice Department policy last year to require warrants came only a week after the DEA carried out its search of the home of Raymond Lambis, the defendant in the case.
The government change in policy came amid sustained criticism and lobbying from lawmakers and privacy advocates after The Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that the government was sometimes attaching the devices to airplanes and picking up troves of data.
Tuesday’s case dealt with a DEA investigation in which law enforcement actually obtained a warrant to get information from the target’s phone — including past numbers called and cell-site location information.
But to get the exact location, the DEA used the StingRay device to track the mobile phone to Lambis’s apartment. Later that day, the DEA received consent to enter the home and found drugs and drug paraphernalia.
The judge said it did not matter that the DEA got permission to enter the apartment because the initial use of the tracking device was illegal. The judge said law enforcement could have easily obtained a warrant to use the device but didn’t.
“Here, the use of the cell-site simulator to obtain more precise information about the target phone’s location was not contemplated by the original warrant application,” the judge ruled. “If the Government had wished to use a cell-site simulator, it could have obtained a warrant.”
The case against Lambis is ongoing.