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Prosecutors Say Cops Don't Need Warrants For Stingrays Because 'Everyone Knows' Cell Phones Generate Location Data

Published: January 26, 2016
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Source: Tech Dirt

Up in Baltimore, where law enforcement Stingray device use hit critical mass faster and more furiously than anywhere else in the country (to date...) with the exposure of 4,300 deployments in seven years, the government is still arguing there's no reason to bring search warrants into this. 

The state's Attorney General apparently would like the Baltimore PD's use of pen register orders to remain standard operating procedure. According to a brief filed in a criminal case relying on the warrantless deployment of an IMSI catcher (in this case a Hailstorm), the state believes there's no reason for police to seek a warrant because everyone "knows" cell phones generate data when they're turned on or in use. (h/t Brad Heath of USA Today)

The whereabouts of a cellular telephone are not "withdrawn from public view" until it is turned off, or its SIM card removed. Anyone who has ever used a smartphone is aware that the phone broadcasts its position on the map, leading to, for example, search results and advertising tailored for the user's location, or to a "ride-sharing" car appearing at one's address. And certainly anyone who has ever used any sort of cellular telephone knows that it must be in contact with an outside cell tower to function.

The state's brief folds in parts of the Third Party Doctrine and the Supreme Court's 1979 Smith v. Maryland decision to make a truly terrible argument that because certain aspects of cell phones involuntarily create location data, the Fourth Amendment never comes into play.

Matt Blaze rephrases the state's argument slightly, exposing the ridiculousness of this assertion.

"People let people into their houses sometimes, therefore no warrant is needed to search houses". Or something.

The state follows this up by arguing that, because the use of a pen register order to deploy an IMSI catcher is not expressly forbidden by local statutes, the evidence shouldn't be suppressed.

There was no cellular tracking device statute in effect at the time. There was an order from a neutral magistrate, finding probable cause to authorize precisely what was done in this case; the closest applicable statute does not contain an exclusionary provision. Thus, the court erred in excluding evidence in this case.

All well and good, except that the only reason there was no statute in place is because local law enforcement spent years keeping its cell phone tracking devices hidden from judges and defendants, obscuring the technology through parallel construction and misleading pen register order requests. This case is no different than the hundreds preceding it. The magistrate judge signing the pen register order had no idea what the Baltimore PD was actually doing. The presiding judge in this prosecution declared the Baltimore PD's pen register request contained "material misrepresentations" on his way towards granting the suppression of evidence.

For the state to claim everything was above board and no Fourth Amendment violations occurred is rather audacious, considering it spent months dodging discovery requestsrelated to the methods used to locate the defendant.

The request, asking for no more than what the State was compelled to disclose pursuant to Maryland Rule 4-263, sought: 1) "records, notes, and documents" relating to the Baltimore Police Department's investigation into a second suspect from the April 27, 2014 shooting; as well as 2) information "indicating how Mr. Andrews was located at 5032 Clifton Avenue."

Over two months later, on January 8, 2015, the State responded to the discovery request. The State claimed not to "possess information related to the method used to locate the Defendant at 5032 Clifton Avenue." (T1 9) This turned out to be false.

In fact, the state did not turn over its IMSI catcher-related information until mid-May 2015, more than seven months from the point it was originally requested. That's a long time to withhold information on a Hailstorm deployment the state now claims was both perfectly legal and intruded on no one's privacy.



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