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Stingray Can Find Bad Guys, but It Can't Avoid Warrants

No thanks to technology, this time the bad guy got away.

Quinton Redell Sylvestre allegedly robbed a Boca Raton restaurant, where he and two companions shot and killed a victim. Investigators found him later using a Stingray -- a device that intercepts cell phone signals to locate people.

With the guns, mask, and ammunition, it looked like they had their man. But then there was a legal problem with the Stingray.

Stingray Searches

A Stingray simulates a cell phone tower, transmitting cellular signals to and from nearby cell phones. When police use the device, they can follow a phone's signals to their location.

Increasingly, courts are requiring police to obtain warrants before using the device. California, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Utah, and Washington, for example, require them.

In State of Florida v. Sylvestre, a state appeals court said police ran afoul of the law by sidestepping a warrant. Investigators got a warrant to search the defendant's residence, but they didn't have a warrant for the Stingray.

"With a cell-site simulator, the government does more than obtain data held by a third party," the appeals court said. "The government surreptitiously intercepts a signal that the user intended to send to a carrier's cell-site tower or independently pings a cell phone to determine its location."

Police Are Better Off Seeking Warrants

Reporting on the decision, TechDirt said police are "better off" seeking warrants if they want to locate a suspect's phone. Of course, that lesson came at a cost in the case.

"The evidence obtained from the search of the residence the phone was located at is going to disappear as well," TechDirt said. "And that's evidence the government likely can't do without."

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