The Court of Appeals in Prince Jones v. U.S., decided on September 21, 2017, considered and evaluated the legality of the police force use of cell site simulator commonly known as “stingray” without a search warrant.
The Court in short concluded that deployment of “stingray” without a valid search warrant violated the 4th Amendment of the Constitution and evidence hence collected would be excluded as “fruits of a poisonous tree.”
Prince Jones was convicted for sexual assault and robbery (stolen cell phones). The police force shortly after the incident deployed a cell tower simulator to pinpoint his location via his cell phone number as well as via stolen phones in his possession.
At trial, the defense suppression motion was denied as the government successfully argued that the Mr. Jones’ location could have been discovered equally by tracking the location of the stolen phones, which was legal without obtaining a warrant, and subject to inevitable discovery rule and thus admissible.
The Court of Appeals disagreed.
The Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The use of a cell-site simulator to locate Mr. Jones‘s cell phone constituted a search and seizure and required a warrant.
The Court reasoned:
- First, cell phone tracking (stingray) can easily invade the right to privacy no matter the location albeit a private home with a far higher expectation of privacy v. a public place.
- Second, a person’s public movements and location revealed via cell-site simulator can reveal sensitive information about the person’s familial, political, professional, religious, and even sexual associations.
- A final consideration is that the stingray exploits a security vulnerability in the phones as it simulates as a cell tower tricking the phones in its vicinity to connect with it and thus revealing all of its identifying information as well as location.
The Court also reasoned that even if most individuals are aware that their digital phones are GPS capable and thus reversely can be tracked such does not diminish or dilute their reasonable and legitimate expectation of privacy.
The inevitable-discovery doctrine was specifically considered by the Court and dismissed as inapplicable here.
This doctrine would create an exception in cases where the government can show by a preponderance of evidence that the illegally collected evidence would have been ultimately or inevitably discovered.
If the law enforcement had pursued interception of the stolen phones and had inadvertently come in contact with Mr. Jones — then the inevitable-discovery doctrine would have been applicable. Here however, the law enforcement track was to locate and intercept the defendant’s phone and that required a warrant.
The good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule is also not applicable. That is, when the law enforcement in good faith believes that their conduct and method of pursing the suspect is legal.
Here it was clear that the detectives were conducting REan unlawful search using a secret technology that they had shielded from judicial oversight and public scrutiny.
In the face of ever intrusive and invasive law enforcement broad surveillance, drone technology, and eroding privacy laws – this case stands for preserving and protecting the constitutionally granted right to privacy, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure.