Phones, GPS Trackers and Stingrays: Unlawful Searches for Criminal Defense Cases in Tennessee

Everyone is aware that cell phones contain a vast amount of data about the owner. Most are aware that cell phones are also able to be used to track the geospatial location of the user. We see this on television all the time. It is probably less known that law enforcement has devices colloquially known as “Stingrays” which can intercept the constant flow of data coming from your cell phone. Stingrays — also known as “IMSI-catchers” — can be used to pinpoint your location. However, cell phone data, GPS trackers and devices like IMSI-catchers raise serious concerns about Fourth Amendment privacy for criminal defense cases in Tennessee.

Can the police take your phone and search the contents? Can you refuse to give the police your password or code? Can the police use the constant stream of data coming from your phone to pinpoint your location?

New judicial decisions are answering some of these questions when it comes to criminal defense cases. Here is an update on what Chattanooga criminally accused should know.

The Exclusionary Rule Applies to Cell Phones, Gps Transponders and Stingrays

Phones, GPS Trackers and Stingrays: Unlawful Searches for Criminal Defense Cases in TennesseeHere in Chattanooga, under both Tennessee law and federal law, citizens are protected from unreasonable and unlawful searches by the police. Pursuant to the legal doctrine called the exclusionary rule, any evidence gathered by an unlawful search must be excluded from use at trial. Excluding such evidence is often a crucial element for criminal defense cases.

Protect your legal rights with help from the criminal defense attorneys at Best, Hayduk & Brock.

In two recent US Supreme Court cases, it was held that the exclusionary rule applied to cell phones and GPS tracking devices. In Riley v. California, 134 S.Ct. 2473 (2014), the Supreme Court said that Fourth Amendment privacy rights were implicated for cell phones. The court noted that what we store on our cell phone is, in many respects, more revealing than what we have in our homes. As such, a warrant is needed to search a cellphone. The Riley decision was unanimous.

In United States v. Jones, 132 S.Ct. 935 (2012) — Antoine Jones — the Court held that it was unconstitutional for law enforcement to physically place a global positioning system (“GPS”) tracker on your car without a warrant. The court was split on the reasoning, but they were unanimous in the outcome. Some of the Justices were concerned about the physical “trespass” involved; other Justices were concerned about the length of time, the precision of the information gathered and expressed the view that there are significant expectations of privacy about where and when we drive. The Jones decision was amplified in 2014 to cover personal GPS devices used to monitor recidivism.

Moving to Stingrays, a recent decision from the Federal Circuit holds that law enforcement now needs a warrant to use Stingrays, too. This could be big news if your Chattanooga criminal defense case involves the use of a Stingray or other similar devices.

What Is a Stingray?

A Stingray is small electronic module — about the size of a counter-top toaster oven — that sends out radio signals pretending to be a cellphone tower. The Stingray is programmed with the cellphone number that is being tracked. The signals trick the cell phone into connecting to the Stingray. Once connected, the Stingray can collect and intercept any of the following:

  • Location — current and historical;
  • Text messages — real-time and stored;
  • Emails;
  • Internet traffic and history; and
  • Information that was input by the cellphone user.

Most importantly, Stingrays can pinpoint precisely the location of a cell phone. Law enforcement have been using Stingray-like devices for years to track the location of suspects.

Use of a Stingray in Criminal Defense Cases Requires a Warrant

A new decision from the US Federal Circuit on September 21, 2017, held that the government’s warrantless use of a Stingray was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. The case was Jones v US, 15-CF-322 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 21, 2107). This case involved a different Mr. Jones — Mr. Prince Jones — than Mr. Jones involved in the 2012 Supreme Court case discussed above.

In 2013, Prince Jones was arrested and charged with sexual assault of two women and theft of their valuables (including their cell phones). In both crimes, Jones used an online dating website and calls from his cellphone to lure the women to meeting places. Based on the cellphone information of the two women, the police obtained Jones’ phone number and his phone’s identification number. But Jones’ name remained unknown since had used a generic prepaid cell phone with no subscriber information.

With the phone number and the phone’s ID number, the police obtained information from the cellphone service provider and were able to locate Jones’ phones generally — within yards. Using the same process, the police tracked the two phones of the victims. The police determined that all three phones were together.

Once they knew generally where the phones were, the police then took a Stingray to the general vicinity — a DC Metro station — and turned the device on. The police input the phone ID number for Jones’ phone and the Stingray then connected to the phone and provided the police with its pinpoint location. Shortly thereafter, the cellphone was found on Jones, sitting in a parked car. The stolen phones from the victims were also found along with the knife he had used.

Jones’ attorneys argued that the use of the Stingray was a search. Since the DC Police had not obtained a warrant, Jones’ attorneys argued that the search was unlawful and that all the information flowing from use of the Stingray — including the knife — had to be excluded from use at trial. The trial judge denied the Motion To Suppress.

However, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed. The Circuit Court held that use of the Stingray “invaded a reasonable expectation of privacy and was thus a search.” As such, a warrant was required under the Fourth Amendment. Since no warrant had been obtained, all the evidence was excluded. The case was sent back to the trial court for a new trial.

These cases demonstrates that the unbridled use of technology and the information stored on devices will not be allowed without warrants. The courts are providing protection for citizens and those who are arrested and charged with crimes.

Contact Best and Brock Today for a Criminal Defense Consultation

The exclusionary rule is among the many defenses that can be used to defend you against criminal charges. When you need a tough Chattanooga criminal defense attorney who gets results and who knows the law, contact the law firm of Best and Brock. Client service is goal number one at Best and Brock. Our focus will be getting you through every stage of the criminal process with a positive outcome. Contact us today via email or by calling directly.