In a groundbreaking opinion out of the Southern District of New York, a federal judge has excluded narcotics evidence obtained when DEA agents used a controversial "stingray" device to locate a suspect's apartment. A cell-site simulator— sometimes referred to as a “StingRay,” “Hailstorm,” or “TriggerFish”—is a device that locates cell phones by mimicking the service provider’s cell tower and forcing cell phones to transmit “pings” to the simulator. The device then calculates the strength of the “pings” until the target phone is pinpointed.
In United States v. Lambis, Drug Enforcement Administration agents used the stingray device to track Lambis' cell phone to a specific apartment. When they arrived at the apartment, they obtained Landis' consent to search the apartment, and they promptly found narcotics in the apartment. Lambis moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the narcotics should be excluded at trial because the DEA agents had violated the Fourth Amendment by failing to obtain a warrant to track his cell phone using the stingray device. The District Court agreed, finding that "the use of a cell-site simulator constitutes a Fourth Amendment search within the contemplation of Kyllo. Absent a search warrant, the Government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device."
This is an excellent ruling for anyone who carries a cell phone as it requires the Government to obtain a warrant prior to surreptitiously tracking its citizens using these devices. It also highlights the importance of hiring effective criminal defense counsel when faced with criminal charges as many lawyers who do not focus on criminal defense are unlikely to know about these devices or what to do when a client has been tracked by one.