The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld and strengthened the Constitution by declaring that “stingray” cell-site replicas are a “search.” Bringing a conclusion to the case of Prince Jones v. United States, the final order has been called a “landmark ruling for privacy and Fourth Amendment rights as they pertain to policing tactics.” State courts have made similar rulings that all insist a Judge must give his seal of approval with a warrant before the equipment can be used.
What raises the outcome to epic levels this time is the final order that proclaims the violation of Jones’ privacy rights was so terrible, all of the evidence linked to the warrantless stingray use needs to be thrown out. In this case, that means overturning the underlying violent crime convictions.
Thursday’s decision will have far-reaching significance impacting agencies up and down the scale from local police to federal agents, who use the equipment to imitate a cell tower and trick a suspect’s phone into connecting to it, instead of the nearest network tower. This decree overrides the D.C. Superior Court findings and sets Prince Jones free because even someone suspected of nine felony counts of kidnapping, armed robbery, and sexual abuse has a right to keep their location private.
Under the Fourth Amendment, we all have the right to be secure in our “persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Police can go to a judge and obtain a warrant allowing the search but they have to show “probable cause” and support it with an “oath or affirmation particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”
Operation of the gear “to locate a person through his or her cellphone invades the person’s actual, legitimate and reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her location information and is a search,” the Appeals court reprimanded.
In two separate incidents, Jones hooked up with women he arranged to meet for sex through Backpage.com. He then assaulted and robbed them at knifepoint. Both times he took their phones. Police used call records to determine the same number had been used to arrange both encounters. After ferreting out the technical “identification numbers” for all three phones, they had the help of the network providers and “obtained a general location for the phones, which police said appeared to be traveling together,” according to court records.
The documents also describe, “once in the vicinity of the phones, the police turned on the StingRay and punched in the identification number of the assailant’s phone. The StingRay acts like a cell site antenna and convinces cellphones to connect to it instead of a real cell site, providing the phone numbers and locations of the phones that connect. The phones are useless during this time because they aren’t connected to an actual network, only the StingRay.”
Police soon had Jones in handcuffs after finding him sitting in a parked car with all three phones in his possession. Ironically, if the police had used the cell spoofer on one of the victim’s phones, instead of the suspect, the search would have been perfectly legal. Both victims consented to the search.
The higher court points out the judge made a mistake in the underlying criminal case by allowing the phone seizure. “A person’s awareness that the government can locate and track him or her using his or her cellphone likewise should not be sufficient to negate the person’s otherwise legitimate expectation of privacy,” the majority concluded. A knife Jones used in the assaults, as well as incriminating statements of both Jones and his girlfriend, were all tossed out as “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
ACLU’s Nathan Wessler proclaims, “This opinion joins the growing chorus of courts holding that the Fourth Amendment protects against warrantless use of invasive, covert technology to track people’s phones. . . . We applaud today’s opinion for erecting sensible and strong protections against the government violating people’s privacy in the digital age.”
The D.C. Appeals Court has the same authority in D.C. as any of the state Supreme Courts. Because this is now the fourth time that similar rulings have been handed down, the U.S. Supreme court is unlikely to consider it further. They tend to reserve their consideration for cases where there are disputes between various state Supreme Courts.