Police must get warrant to use Stingrays, Maryland court rules

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Maryland’s second highest court upheld a previous ruling that requires law enforcement in the state to establish probable cause and obtain a warrant before using Stingray devices to covertly track people on their cell phones.

Maryland’s second highest court upheld a previous ruling that requires law enforcement in the state to establish probable cause and obtain a warrant before using Stingray devices to covertly track people on their cell phones.

The 74-page opinion was published Wednesday by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. The panel of judges stated that “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.”

This order upholds the decision of a lower court, which ruled that the police shouldn’t have used a cell-site simulator in a case involving Kerron Andrews, who was charged with attempted murder in 2014. Any evidence gathered using the device was suppressed on Fourth Amendment grounds, which lead the prosecutors to appeal, and ultimately to the current ruling.

Civil liberties advocates say that the impact of the appellate court’s ruling will be far-reaching, since it is the first court of its kind in the country to rule on whether police must disclose their intent to a judge obtain a warrant to use devices like Stingrays.

"The court's opinion is a resounding defense of Fourth Amendment rights in the digital age," said Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, according to the Baltimore Sun. "The court's withering rebuke of secret and warrantless use of invasive cell phone tracking technology shows why it is so important for these kinds of privacy invasions to be subjected to judicial review."

He added that courts will be able to use the opinion as precedent in similar cases involving the “rampant use” of cell-site simulators by police nationwide.

The opinion also rebuked the Baltimore Police Department for doing what so many other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have done nationwide: Signing a nondisclosure agreement with the device’s manufacturer that prevented police from providing details about Stingray use, even in a court of law.

“We perceive the State’s actions in this case to protect the Hailstorm technology, driven by a nondisclosure agreement to which it bound itself, as detrimental to its position and inimical to the constitutional principles we revere,” the court wrote.

Another case related to the warrantless use of Stingrays, known as United States v. Patrick, is currently pending before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, Illinois. The decision in that case would become the first ruling of its kind in a federal appeals court.