Legal Aid Lauds Recent Court Decision Requiring NYPD to Secure Warrants for Stingray Searches Historic Ruling Ends a 10-Year Unfettered Practice of NYPD Operating Cell-Site Simulators Without Obtaining Warrants

The Legal Aid Society lauded a recent court decision on a client case where a judge ruled that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) must secure an eavesdropping warrant to conduct cell-site simulator searches, also colloquially known as a Stingray. The Judge also suppressed a line-up identification as a result of the use of the Stingray.

Stingrays are used by law enforcement as surveillance devices that mimic cell phone towers and gather location and identifying information from nearby cell phones. Some are even capable of intercepting communications like phone calls and text messages.

The New York City Police Department (NYPD) has used Stingrays extensively in the past with essentially no oversight.

Their use recently became public knowledge through a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request submitted by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).

Eavesdropping warrants carry a number of procedural requirements to secure that a regular warrant does not.

Key excerpts of the Judge’s decision include:

  • “In addition to downloading information from all the cellular phones located in the area, a cell site simulator can be used to locate a specific cellular phone when the phone owner's phone number is known, but not the location. Documents in the public domain suggest that Stingrays can obtain and record a wide array of data from an individual's cell phone, including highly precise real time cell phone location and the contents of voice and text communications.”
  • “With the requirement of probable cause, a warrant for GPS tracking devices fits into the statutory scheme for eavesdropping and visual surveillance warrants. Accordingly, the People must provide the issuing court with additional information including a showing that normal investigative procedures have been tried and have failed or reasonably appear to be unlikely to succeed if tried, or are too dangerous to employ.”
  • “Finally, unlike pen register device information or that provided by the CSLI, a cell site simulator device does not involve a third party.”
  • “By its very nature, then, the use of a cell site simulator intrudes upon an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, acting as an instrument of eavesdropping and requires a separate warrant supported by probable cause rather than a mere pen register/trap and trace order such as the one obtained in this case by the NYPD.”

Read the full decision.

“Cell-site simulator searches should not be treated any differently from other searches that require a warrant approved by a judge upon a showing of probable cause,” said Jerome Greco, Staff Attorney at The Legal Aid Society. “This is a historic decision and we hope that the NYPD ends the secrecy and comports with this ruling. However, the ruling does not supplant our concern with these devices and the way in which they’re employed. There are serious questions of constitutionality and civil rights that City Hall and 1 Police Plaza need to do a better job of addressing.”

"This ruling marks an important initial step toward greater accountability of the NYPD’s surveillance program, and it should not take litigation to achieve this goal,” said Council Member Dan Garodnick. “We need greater oversight of how the police are using their surveillance tools and how they are protecting the data of innocent New Yorkers. We have a bill -- the POST Act -- that does just that, and I am working to make sure this common-sense measure becomes law this year.”