The highest local appeals court in Washington, D.C. — the district’s equivalent of a state supreme court — is considering a challenge to police use of a cell phone tracking device to locate a suspect without first obtaining a warrant.

The highest local appeals court in Washington, D.C. — the district’s equivalent of a state supreme court — is considering a challenge to police use of a cell phone tracking device to locate a suspect without first obtaining a warrant.

The device, known as a “cell site simulator” or a “Stingray,” tracks phones by mimicking cell towers, forcing phones in the area into broadcasting their identifying information.

In 2013, the Metropolitan Police Department used a Stingray to track a suspect’s cell phone while investigating several sexual assaults and robberies, but officers did not obtain a warrant or any other court order before to using the device. Police were able to precisely locate the suspect, Prince Jones, sitting in his parked car on a busy street.

The defense challenged the Stingray’s use before trial, and the lower court found that even if the police actions violated the Fourth Amendment, the evidence found in the car could still be used under the “inevitable discovery” doctrine.

On appeal, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that police should be required to get a warrant before using a Stingray because the device can locate people’s cell phones with great precision, including inside of homes and other private spaces protected by the Fourth Amendment. Further, Stingrays can sweep in information about not just a suspect’s cell phone but bystanders’ phones as well.

So far, only one appellate court decision in the country has directly addressed the Fourth Amendment limits on police use of Stingrays. In that case, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals ruled last year that a warrant is required.

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