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Florida Court Says Police Need Warrants for Stingray Cell Phone Searches

By William Vogeler, Esq. on September 17, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A Florida appeals court joined other states in requiring police to obtain warrants before using a controversial cell phone tracker.

A Stingray simulates a cell phone tower, transmitting cellular signals to and from nearby cell phones. When police use the device, they can follow phone signals to their location.

In State of Florida v. Sylvestre, the court said police sidestepped the warrant requirement when they tracked down an accused murderer. They found him, but this time the bad guy got away.

Cell Phone Simulator

Quinton Redell Sylvestre allegedly robbed a Boca Raton restaurant, where he and two companions shot and killed a victim. Police caught him using a Stingray to intercept his cell phone signals.

With the guns, mask, and ammunition, it looked like they had their man. But then there was the warrant problem with the Stingray, and it's been an issue in an increasing number of cases.

Courts in California, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Utah, and Washington, for example, have required them. In Carpenter v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court said warrants are needed even for searching third-party cell sites.

"With a cell-site simulator, the government does more than obtain data held by a third party," the Florida appeals court said. "The government surreptitiously intercepts a signal that the user intended to send to a carrier's cell-site tower or independently pings a cell phone to determine its location."

Better Off Warrants

Reporting on the decision, TechDirt said police are "better off" seeking warrants if they want to locate a suspect's phone. Of course, that lesson came at a cost in the case.

"The evidence obtained from the search of the residence the phone was located at is going to disappear as well," the ezine said. "And that's evidence the government likely can't do without."

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