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Maryland Court of Appeals: Police Must Have Warrant for "Stingray" Phone Tracking

According to criminal defense attorneys in Baltimore, Maryland, at least 200 individuals are now sitting in prison based upon illegally-obtained cell phone records obtained from the use of "stingray" tracking devices.  The suitcase-sized eavesdropping device mimics a cell-phone tower, recording information from cell phones of suspects.  The Court of Appeals ruled that the conviction obtained by the practice must be set aside.

According to the court,  "This case presents a Fourth Amendment issue of first impression in this State: whether a cell phone-a piece of technology so ubiquitous as to be on the person practically every citizen-may be transformed into a real-time tracking device by the government without a warrant." The court's answer: a emphatic, "no!"

USA Today has been in the forefront in an investigation for the past several months detailing the secret and warrantless use of this eavesdropping device, despite the strenuous efforts of law enforcement and the FBI.  The Maryland decision marks the first decision by an appellate court finding it a Fourth Amendment violation.

In May, 2014, the court said, "the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) used an active cell site simulator, without a warrant, to locate Appellee Kerron Andrews was wanted on charges of attempted murder...(which) forced (his) cell phone into transmitting signals that allowed police to track it..." In the Circuit Court of Baltimore, Andrew's motion to quash was granted, and the state appealed.

According to Natalie Finegar, who works with the Baltimore Public Defender's Office, "We have a grave concern that our clients are incarcerated because stingray that was illegal."  Approximately 2,000 cases in Baltimore have been identified in which stingrays were illegally used to facilitate arrests.

"Cell phone users have an objectively reasonable expectation that their cell phones will not be used as real-time tracking devices, through the direct and active interference of law enforcement," the court of Appeals also said, accusing Baltimore police of intentionally misleading the lower-court judge as to the propriety of using the device.

The decision cast even more illumination on a disturbing pattern of many police departments and prosecutors in conducting warrantless searches, and then misleading defense attorneys and judges when their deceptive practices were revealed.  It now appears that the "stingray" device has been in use by law enforcement for at least a decade.

According to USA Today, "Dozens of police departments from Miami to Los Angeles own stingrays, but few have revealed when or how they use them, in large part because they signed nondisclosure agreements with the FBI."  The U.S. Department of Justice has now issued a directive that federal law enforcement officials must obtain a warrant before using the devices, but it is impossible to estimate how many individuals across the country have been wrongfully convicted because of its illegal and warrantless use.


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