Does Technology Trump the Right to Privacy? A Recent Ruling Says No!

Cell Phone images

Does Technology Trump the Right to Privacy? A Recent Ruling Says No!

Many law enforcement agencies utilize cell-site simulators (a.k.a StingRay, Hailstorm, or Triggerfish) to track the whereabouts of suspected criminals. Essentially, these devices act like cellphone towers—deceiving cell phones into sending pings by which the specific location of a particular device is narrowed down.

The obtained pings often lead directly to someone’s residence where officers may indeed find the suspect and/or proof of criminal activity.

However, the Fourth Amendment ensures protection to citizens within their homes, mandating that a warrant is issued prior to any search or seizure of property.

Can evidence seized in a residence be admissible if law enforcement agents used warrantless technology to determine the location?

According to a recent ruling, the answer is no.

United States v. Raymond Lambis: The Details

In 2015, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agents used a cell-site simulator to track down an apartment where criminal activity was suspected. The owner of the apartment permitted the search—a kilo of heroin, drug paraphernalia, and eight cell phones were found.

Judge William Pauley of the Southern District Court of New York recently ruled in this case, the United States v. Raymond Lambis, and stated that, “Absent the search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device.”

As a result of his determination, all of the drug evidence in the case was deemed inadmissible.

How Similar Cases Informed This Decision

Judge Pauley utilized two prior decisions to inform his ruling in this case:

1. In the case of United States v. Karo argued in 1984, law enforcement agents tracked criminal activity by using a warrantless beeper. The Supreme Court maintained that “monitoring a beeper in a private residence violates the Fourth Amendment.”

2. In a US Supreme Court case argued in 2001 titled Kyllo v. the United States, the justices found that a search warrant was required in order to utilize thermal imaging devices that detect infrared radiation emanating from a house. An excerpt from the ruling stated: “Where the Government uses a device that is not in the general public for use, to explore details of a home, that would have previously been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a ‘search,’ and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant.”

In both of these decisions, the evidence was problematic because of the way in which it was obtained: unlawfully (in violation of the Fourth Amendment).

Consequences of the United States v. Raymond Lambis Ruling

This recent decision makes an important statement: Citizens still have rights even though technology can, and does, circumvent those rights.

Many organizations that advocate for civil liberties and personal freedoms, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, feel triumphant and satisfied by Judge Pauley’s decision.

While there is a possibility that this decision could be reversed on appeal, law enforcement will now have to obtain a warrant from the court prior to using this type of technology in their efforts to locate criminal activity and conduct searches.

Have you ever experienced a privacy violation as a result of technological advances? If so, you better call Saul at (212) 363-7701!

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