A New York federal judge ruled on Tuesday that law enforcement needed a warrant before using a device that mimics cell phone towers to help track a person’s cell phone.
Observers said the decision 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 demand warrants in the future.
Judge William Pauley on Tuesday dismissed drug evidence collected from a person’s home after the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) used a cell site simulator to track and locate the precise location of the suspect’s cell phone.
The devices, commonly known as StingRays, trick cell phones to send their signal to the device instead of a cell phone tower. Law enforcement can use the following âpingsâ to pinpoint the near-precise location of a mobile phone.
“Without a search warrant, the government cannot turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device,” the judge wrote in his opinion. “Perhaps recognizing this, the Justice Department has changed its internal policies and now requires government agents to obtain a warrant before using a cell site simulator.”
Last year, the Justice Department’s new policy of requiring warrants came just a week after the DEA searched the home of Raymond Lambis, the accused in the case.
The government’s 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 sometimes tethered devices to planes and recovered treasure troves of data. .
Tuesday’s case involved a DEA investigation in which law enforcement actually obtained a warrant to obtain information from the target’s phone, including previous numbers called and cell site location information. .
But to get the exact location, the DEA used the StingRay device to track the cell phone to Lambis’ apartment. Later that day, the DEA was cleared to enter the house and found drugs and drug paraphernalia.
The judge said it didn’t matter whether the DEA got permission to enter the apartment because the initial use of the tracking device was illegal. The judge said law enforcement could easily have obtained a warrant to use the device, but did not.
âHere, the use of the cell site simulator to obtain more precise information about the location of the target phone was not contemplated by the original warrant application,â the judge said. âIf the government had wanted to use a cell site simulator, it could have obtained a warrant. “
The case against Lambis is ongoing.