31 Mar 2016

Maryland Court to Baltimore Police: Want to Track Phones? Get a Warrant.

In what privacy advocates are hailing as a landmark decision, Maryland’s second-highest court has handed down the first appellate opinion in the country affirming that police must obtain a probable cause warrant to track cell phones.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals issued the opinion in a ruling that rebuked Baltimore Police for failing to disclose that they had used a device called a cell site simulator, often referred to as a “stingray,” to locate an attempted murder suspect.

The device mimics a cell phone tower, triggering all cell phones in an area to connect with it and determine where a particular phone is located. The judges said cell phones have become ubiquitous, and in turn can be transformed into real-time tracking devices.

“We conclude that people have a reasonable expectation that their cell phones will not be used as real-time tracking devices by law enforcement, and — recognizing that the Fourth Amendment protects people and not simply areas — that people have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in real-time cell phone location information,” the judges wrote.

Dan Kobrin, an attorney with the public defender’s office who argued the case before the court, said the impact is “enormous” and “will hopefully curb abuse of this device and bring it out into the sunlight.” But he said it was unclear whether the ruling can be applied retroactively.

“Other courts will be able to look to this opinion as they address rampant use of cell site simulators by police departments across the country.”

The Attorney General’s Office, which had argued that phone users voluntarily share their whereabouts and can opt out by turning their phone off, said it is reviewing the opinion and considering whether it will appeal to the state’s highest court.

Baltimore became a focal point in 2014 for the growing awareness and debate over stingray technology, which had been in use for years but had been concealed from courts and the public. Defense attorneys began to suspect and challenge the use of the device; in one case, a detective took the stand and refused to discuss the technology, and was nearly held in contempt by a judge.

Then, The Sun published a non-disclosure agreement struck by the FBI with Baltimore Police and the State’s Attorney’s Office, in which local authorities agreed never to disclose use of a stingray device. Prosecutors agreed to drop cases if they presented a risk that the technology would be revealed.

You can read the rest of the article here: http://bsun.md/22SWn1K

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