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Police Need a Warrant to Use Your Cell Phone to Find You

What could law enforcement learn about you from using your cell phone to track your location in real time? All sorts of things – what doctors you go to, what therapists you see, when you visit a lawyer’s office, where you go at night, to name just a few.  The technology to locate your cell phone in your purse or pocket and thereby find you virtually anywhere already exists.  Fortunately, courts are now telling cops that they must get a warrant before using cellular data to track a phone during a criminal investigation.

Law enforcement use of cell site simulators

Law enforcement employs a type of device known as a cell site simulator (also called a Stingray or Hailstorm) that forces a cell phone to transmit signals to it by mimicking a cell tower, thereby revealing the phone’s location.  As reported by the ABA Journal, police in Maryland used a Hailstorm device without a warrant to locate Kerron Andrews, a suspect charged with attempted murder.  The device enabled the police to track Andrews to a residence, where they arrested him.  After his arrest, police obtained a search warrant for the premises and found a gun among the couch cushions.  Andrews argued that use of the Hailstorm without a warrant violated his Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Maryland appellate court agreed with Andrews.  (See Maryland v. Andrews decision here.)  The court held that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in real-time cell phone location information, which requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant to use that information unless an established exception to the warrant requirement exists.  No such exception existed in Andrews’s case.  The court went on to find that police were only able to obtain a warrant to search the house because of their unconstitutional use of the cell site simulator, and that therefore the gun turned up in that search was “fruit of the poisonous tree” and could not be used as evidence against Andrews.

What does Florida law say about cell site simulators?

While Florida courts have not addressed this precise question, a 2014 case suggests that they would reach the same conclusion.  An article on Wired.com points out that in 2014 the Florida Supreme Court ruled that obtaining cell phone location data from a telecom provider to track a person’s location or movement in real time constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant. (See Tracey v. Florida, here.)  The main difference between this situation and the Andrews case is that by using a cell site simulator, police can bypass the telecom provider, which does not make the use of location data any less intrusive or less a search.

Consult an Orlando Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you have been arrested in Florida, your need representation from a dedicated criminal defense lawyer familiar with the complexities of Florida’s criminal law.  The experienced lawyers of The Baez Law Firm have represented clients in all types of criminal matters in Orlando, Miami, Tampa, and throughout the state.  We will examine all possible avenues of defense, including questioning the means through which any evidence against you may have been obtained.  Contact us for a consultation without delay.

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