Warrantless Use of Cell-Phone Tracking Surveillance Technology by Law Enforcement

Increasing number of cases involving the law enforcement agencies’ warrantless use of cell phone tracking devices has recently promulgated the need for regulations that would address escalating privacy concerns.

Metropolitan Police Department has already signed a non-disclosure agreement with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) enabling the agents to keep all the cell-phone surveillance data private.

Commonly known as a Stingray, these detection surveillance devices act as a wireless cell-phone tower broadcasting a strong signal allowing for the Stingray to connect to any cellular device in close vicinity.

Consequently, the Department of Justice issued new guidelines preventing the federal agents from using the aforementioned devices without obtaining a search warrant first.

In light of extreme secrecy surrounding the use of surveillance devices, the case of Prince Jones v. United States came spotlight when the police had used a stingray device to locate Mr. Jones who was a suspect in a robbery and multiple sexual assaults case.

The panel of three appellate judges were to decide whether the city police’s warrantless use of the surveillance device trampled on Mr. Jones privacy rights who was convicted in November of 2012 of robbery and sexually assaulting two women.

The police utilized a cell-phone tracking device to establish the exact location of a suspect who was eventually found sitting in a car parked on a public street.

The D.C. Public Defender Service supported with an amicus curiae briefs filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the ACLU’s Washington affiliate and the Electronic Frontier Foundation all argued that police should use a search warrant before conducting surveillance operations to protect the constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.

The Government argued that the warrantless use of a Stingray device was justified under the inevitable discovery doctrine. The defense countered that the authorities should have used a stingray to pinpoint victim’s stolen phones location, instead of Mr. Jones’ cell phone.

The Public Defender Service further argued that the police should have obtained a warrant to search Mr. Jones’ personal belongings.

Judge Phyllis D. Thompson countered that the defendant should not have reasonable expectations of privacy while in possession of stolen property.

Presently, Mr. Jones case is the second case reaching the appellate court level after the Maryland Special Court of Appeal ruled the need for a search warrant in the case of State of Maryland v. Andrews.

Here because Jones was in possession of stolen phones any of which could have been tracked by the law enforcement without a search warrant — it is more likely that the Court will side with the law enforcement and carve yet another exception to the warrantless tracking of cell devices during an ongoing investigation.

Categories: Criminal Defense.