By Maya Kushner, Esq. and Marc Emden, Esq.
With the pervasiveness of cell phones, police are using GPS coordinates for cell phone tracking and to track the location of crime suspects. However, in their zeal to make arrests, the police have been secretly and illegally using high tech equipment to locate suspects in a wide range of cases, including murder, robbery, and drug-related offences.
Recent Cell Phone Tracking Case
Last month Emdenlaw covered the September 2015 State v. Andrews case, in which a Maryland high court struck down the seizure of a gun found on a man where police had unlawfully employed a phone tracking device to locate the suspect for whom they had an arrest warrant. The tracking device used was a Hailstorm, which is the current generation of what is more commonly known as a Stingray device, manufactured by the Harris Corporation. This device is a cell site simulator, mimicking a wireless carrier tower; it forces all nearby cellular devices to connect to the tracking device as if it were a tower, thereby allowing the user (police) to see the identity of every cell phone in the area. The device can then obtain and record unique identifying information of each cell phone, calculate and displays the strength of the signal and the direction it is coming from, and help pinpoint the location of the cellphone phone – and hence the person in possession of it.
Most recently, Capital News Service has published the results of a journalist’s in-depth investigation into Stingray use by various law enforcement agencies in Maryland. The report also contain 35 documents, including Stingray usage logs, non-disclosure agreements the agencies signed with the FBI in order to use the technology, purchase orders, police reports from investigations where the technology was used, court transcripts, denials of the journalist’s requests for information, and others.
The use of cell phone tracking, especially when implemented without the permission of the court, raises serious concerns about violations of a suspect’s constitutional rights, as well as privacy rights of innocent bystanders present in the area under surveillance. On the flip side, the use of this technology has allowed police to locate stolen cell phones, dangerous suspects wanted on homicide charges, as well as missing and suicidal persons.