While stuck in the courthouse a few days ago, I was surfing news sites on my iPhone when I came across this Washington Post article on the awesome little device known as a StingRay, which allow law enforcement to intercept, locate, and track individual cell phones (and the people that carry them). StingRays and similar devices have been in use for a couple of years — at the local, state, and federal level — but haven’t really made it out of the cop shop and into the media yet. It seems that law enforcement who want to use the devices are asking courts for permission — which is good — but not explaining the capabilities of the technology, which is bad. At least some judges think so.
One judge at the forefront of the debate is the Hon. Brian Owlsley, a federal magistrate judge in Corpus Christi, Texas. As described in this Wall Street Journal piece, Magistrate Judge Owlsley has been rejecting requests to use StingRays and similar tracking devices from federal law enforcement. Judge Owsley said that simple requests are not enough, and that full-blown search warrants are required because the technology is so invasive.
In my own practice, I have seen a number of cases where I suspected that law enforcement was using StingRays to obtain leads, but the device has never been mentioned in police reports, and I’ve seen no warrants or other applications. How often do police feel free to track suspects (and anyone else) with these gadgets without obtaining warrants? Maybe I should consider getting a little less attached to my cell phone after all.