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Judges Start To Think Twice About StingRay Surveillance

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.