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Federal Judge Rules Against Cell Phones as Secret Tracking Devices

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on July 14, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A stingray, or cell site simulator, is a device that mimics the activity of a cell phone tower and provides authorities with location data. This week, a federal judge in New York ruled that such evidence requires a search warrant.

Cell phones may not be secretly turned into tracking devices, US District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan ruled, finding this violates the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Reuters reports that this ruling is the first of its kind at the federal level.

Location Data

Judge Pauley found that the Drug Enforcement Administration acted unreasonably when using a stingray without a warrant to track a defendant to his apartment and arrest him, writing, "Absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen's cell phone into a tracking device."

Location data seems innocuous. We often provide it voluntarily, posting on social media when we attend events and much more. Ironically, with the brand new Pokemon Go mania, location data is being volunteered with such alarming frequency that police around the country are asking people to be more careful.

But do we want authorities to know where we are all the time, using our phones against us? According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), at least 66 agencies in 24 states and the District of Columbia own stingrays. There is secrecy surrounding such purchases, so there may be more.

Critics believe cell site simulators are invasive and violate our constitutional rights. For a while it seemed no courts agreed with the critiques. But the ACLU told Reuters that in March, a Maryland appeals court became the first state appellate court to suppress evidence obtained with a stingray. Now Judge Pauley is the first to do so at the federal level. The prosecution may still appeal his ruling but it's a win for civil libertarians.


As this case shows, a strong defense helps. If you have been accused of a crime, talk to a lawyer. Many criminal defense attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to talk.

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