Technology is advancing rapidly with new devices and software programs being developed every day. These new technological developments have impacted nearly every facet of society, from how we communicate to how we drive. One other area that has seen many changes due to improving technology is law enforcement. Police departments across the country have taken advantage of advancements in things like surveillance equipment to catch criminals in ways that would not have been available in the past.
One device that a number of law enforcement agencies, both state and federal, have been using is called a cell-site simulator, also known as a 'stingray'. This device allows "police to pinpoint a phone's location within a few yards by posing as a cell tower." The police are able to find the suspect, but "[i]n the process, they can intercept information from the phones of nearly everyone else who happens to be nearby, including innocent bystanders." However, the information captured does not include the content of any communications.
In 2015, USA Today reported that these devices are being used by police across the country in order to catch criminals who have committed a wide range of crimes. For example, in Baltimore police found a stolen phone (and the thief) using a stingray and in Tallahassee, police used the tracking technology to find a woman who was wanted for forging checks.
Though this technology may be handy for prosecutors, there are state laws that govern how and when it can be used and when the information must be turned over to the defense. However, in some instances, police do not disclose the use of stingrays. Police in Baltimore did not disclose the fact that a stingray was used to defense attorneys—or even prosecutors—though state law requires it. It is not an uncommon for law enforcement to be secretive about the technology and other police departments have also kept their use of the device under wraps.
As the technology has become more well-known, states have started to put restrictions on when police can use it. For example, Virginia has passed a law that requires police to get a warrant before using the stingray, as has California, Washington, Minnesota, and Utah. Other states, like Arizona, are considering similar legislation this year.
Courts have also taken up the issue. In Maryland, in March 2016, the state's appellate court ruled that police must obtain warrants in order to use a stingray to track a suspect's cell phone. The court stated in the case of Maryland v. Andrews, that "people have a reasonable expectation that their cell phones will not be used as real-time tracking devices by law enforcement, and—recognizing that the Fourth Amendment protects people and not simply areas—that people have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in real-time cell phone location information." According to the Baltimore Sun, this was the first decision of its kind in the country.
This is not the first time that privacy concerns have arisen when it comes to searches of cellular phones, and, as technology is progressing so quickly, it will likely not be the last. If you or a loved one has been arrested and charged with a crime, please do not hesitate to contact the Murphy Law Firm.