For The First Time, A Federal Judge Has Suppressed Evidence Obtained With A Stingray Device
from the get-a-warrant,-g-men dept
Evidence acquired using Stingray devices has rarely been suppressed. This is due to the fact that it’s almost impossible to challenge. The reason it’s almost impossible to challenge is because the FBI — and the law enforcement agencies it “partners” with (via severely restrictive nondisclosure agreements) — will throw out evidence and let suspects walk rather than expose the use of IMSI catchers.
Earlier this year, a Baltimore city circuit judge threw out evidence obtained with the Baltimore PD’s cell tower spoofing equipment. And this was no run-of-the-mill drug bust. An actual murder suspect had evidence suppressed because of the BPD’s warrantless deployment of a Stingray device. Without the use of the Stingray, the BPD would not have been able to locate the suspect’s phone. And without this location, there would have been no probable cause to search the apartment he was in. You can’t build a search warrant on illegally-obtained probable cause, reasoned the judge. Goodbye evidence.
“I can’t play the ‘what if’ game with the Constitution,” [the judge] said, lamenting that it protects people from illegal searches even when the defendant is “likely guilty.”
Now, it’s finally happened at a higher level. For the first time ever, a federal judge has suppressed evidence obtained by the warrantless use of a Stingray device.
U.S. District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan on Tuesday ruled that defendant Raymond Lambis’ rights were violated when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration used such a device without a warrant to find his Washington Heights apartment.
The DEA had used a stingray to identify Lambis’ apartment as the most likely location of a cell phone identified during a drug-trafficking probe. Pauley said doing so constituted an unreasonable search.
“Absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device,” Pauley wrote.
The opinion [PDF] notes the DEA first tried to locate Lambis using cell site location info but found it wasn’t precise enough. So, it deployed a Stingray to track him down, ultimately ending with a DEA tech roaming an apartment’s hallways with a cell site simulator until Lambis was located.
A few hours later, DEA agents showed up at the apartment, where Lambis’ father allowed them to enter and Lambis himself consented to a search of his room and belongings.
It’s pretty tough to work your way backwards from a consensual search to a suppression order, but Lambis’ lawyer was apparently up to the challenge. But — as in the Baltimore PD case — the DEA would never have known which apartment Lambis was located in without the use of a cell site simulator, and that’s where it all falls apart for the DEA.
The government tried to argue that two fairly recent cases involving thermal imaging (Kyllo) and drug dogs (Thomas) weren’t applicable, as its “limited search” only disclosed information it could obtain without a warrant: cell site location. This is at odds with its reasons for deploying the cell site simulator — which was that the CSLI it obtained wasn’t precise enough to locate the suspect.
The court finds the government’s attempt to route around these two precedential decisions unavailing, noting that the use of a cell site simulator is actually more intrusive than the search methods used in the cases the DEA’s lawyers wanted to have ignored.
The Government attempts to diminish the power of Second Circuit precedent by noting that Thomas represents a minority position among circuit courts. But this Court need not be mired in the Serbonian Bog of circuit splits. An electronic search for a cell phone inside an apartment is far more intrusive than a canine sniff because, unlike narcotics, cell phones are neither contraband nor illegal. In fact, they are ubiquitous. Because the vast majority of the population uses cell phones lawfully on a daily basis, “one cannot say (and the police cannot be assured) that use of the relatively crude equipment at issue here will always be lawful.”
The court also points out that the DEA — for whatever reason — obtained a warrant for the cell site location info. It wonders why it didn’t bother to obtain a warrant for the cell site simulator deployment, seeing as it obtained a warrant for information it could have obtained without one. It also notes that a warrant for CSLI is not the same as a warrant for obtaining precise location info via the use of sophisticated electronic equipment.
The fact that the DEA had obtained a warrant for CSLI from the target cell phone does not change the equation. “If the scope of the search exceeds that permitted by the terms of a validly issued warrant . . . , the subsequent seizure is unconstitutional without more.” Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 140 (1990)… 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. If the Government had wished to use a cell-site simulator, it could have obtained a warrant. And the fact that the Government previously demonstrated probable cause and obtained a warrant for CSLI from Lambis’s cell phone suggests strongly that the Government could have obtained a warrant to use a cell-site simulator, if it had wished to do so.
The government also tried to use the Supreme Court’s horrendous Strieff decision to save the evidence, but the court notes that the “temporal proximity” between the illegal Stingray search and the consensual search of the apartment was too close to allow the illegality of the original search to dissipate.
The government also tried to use the Third Party Doctrine to salvage its warrantless search, but the court refuses to be sold on this bad idea.
This Court need not address whether the third party doctrine is “ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks,” United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945, 957 (2012) (Sotomayer, J., concurring), because even under the historic framework of the doctrine, it is not available to the Government here. The doctrine applies when a party “voluntarily turns over [information] to third parties.” Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 744 (1979) […] However, the location information detected by a cell-site simulator is different in kind from pen register information: it is neither initiated by the user nor sent to a third party.
Unlike CSLI, the “pings” picked up by the cell-site simulator are not transmitted in the normal course of the phone’s operation. Rather, “cell site simulators actively locate phones by forcing them to repeatedly transmit their unique identifying electronic serial numbers, and then calculating the signal strength until the target phone is pinpointed.”
These points are good. The following, though, is even better. The court finds the government can’t attempt to use the Third Party Doctrine when it has chosen to act as the “third party” in this equation.
For both the pen register and CSLI, the Government ultimately obtains the information from the service provider who is keeping a record of the information. With the cell-site simulator, the Government cuts out the middleman and obtains the information directly. Without a third party, the third party doctrine is inapplicable.
The Second Circuit has yet to make a decision on the reasonable expectation of privacy in CSLI. If this is appealed, it may finally have to handle that question. Then again, CSLI is only partially implicated here and it may be able to let the Fourth Amendment’s reach be determined on a case-by-case basis until something more directly addressing the issue comes along. If nothing else, the ruling here should encourage more federal agencies operating in this district to get a warrant “just in case.” Then again, the secrecy surrounding Stingray devices discourages the creation of paper trails, so it may be that the government will continue to roll the Fourth Amendment dice until a higher court tells them otherwise.