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200 imprisoned based on illegal cellphone tracking, review finds
Lawyers in Baltimore have identified as many as 200 people who were sent to prison based on evidence police gathered with the help of a powerful cellphone tracking tool that a state court has now ruled was used illegally.
The ruling, issued Wednesday by Maryland’s second-highest court, said Baltimore police violated the Constitution when they used one of the tracking devices to catch a shooting suspect without first obtaining a search warrant. It was the first time an appeals court had weighed in directly on the legality of phone-trackers that have been widely — and mostly secretly — used by police agencies for nearly a decade.
“Cellphone users have an objectively reasonable expectation that their cellphones will not be used as real-time tracking devices, through the direct and active interference of law enforcement,” a panel of three judges on Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals wrote. The judges also accused Baltimore authorities of misleading the lower-court judge who had approved their use of the device, commonly known as a stingray.
That decision could imperil hundreds of criminal convictions in Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland, where police have used stingrays prolifically. An investigation last year by USA TODAY identified nearly 2,000 cases in Baltimore alone in which the police had secretly used stingrays to make arrests for everything from murder to petty thefts, typically without obtaining a search warrant.
“We have a grave concern that our clients are incarcerated because of the use of a stingray that was illegal,” said Natalie Finegar, who is coordinating a review of stingray cases for the city’s public defender.
Finegar said defense lawyers are focused most urgently on about 200 cases in which people appear to have been sent to prison based on evidence the police found after they used a stingray. “Those are the emergencies,” she said. “By itself, it’s just a huge number of cases.”
Stingrays are suitcase-sized devices that allow the police to pinpoint a cellphone’s location to within a few yards by posing as a cell tower. They have drawn alarm from privacy advocates, in part because they also can intercept information from the phones of nearly everyone else who happens to be nearby.
Dozens of police departments from Miami to Los Angeles own stingrays, but few have revealed when or how they use them, in large part because they signed nondisclosure agreements with the FBI. As a result, few courts have weighed in on the circumstances in which the police are permitted to use them.
The U.S. Justice Department last year ordered federal agents to obtain search warrants before using stingrays.
Maryland prosecutors can ask the state’s highest court to overturn Wednesday’s decision. Christine Tobar, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney general, said it was “reviewing and evaluating next steps.”
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