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.