Judge outlaws warrantless use of phone-seeking device

NEW YORK, N.Y. – The warrantless use of a controversial cellphone tracking device in a criminal investigation is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Tuesday as he tossed out evidence seized during an international drug investigation.

U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III in Manhattan said in a written ruling that using devices known as a “Stingray,” ”Hailstorm,” or “TriggerFish” to locate a suspect’s phone is unconstitutional without a warrant.

Pauley rejected the discovery of narcotics, three digital scales, empty zip lock bags and other drug paraphernalia that was seized from a Manhattan apartment during an international drug-trafficking organization probe by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The judge said the search violated the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee that people shall be secure in their homes from unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen’s cellphone into a tracking device,” Pauley wrote.

He noted that the DEA had obtained other search warrants in connection with the investigation and could have obtained one for the cellphone tracking device, as well. And he said the Department of Justice has since changed its internal policies and now requires that government agents obtain a warrant before utilizing such a device.

The ruling was praised by the American Civil Liberties Union, including attorney Nathan Freed Wessler.

“After decades of secret and warrantless use of Stingray technology by federal law enforcement to track phones, a federal court has finally held the authorities to account,” Wessler said in a statement. “The feds are now firmly on notice that when they hide their intent to use invasive surveillance technology from courts and fail to get a warrant, their evidence will be suppressed. This opinion strongly reinforces the strength of our constitutional privacy rights in the digital age.”

A message left with federal prosecutors was not immediately returned.