Use of Cell Site Simulator, not otherwise available to the public, without Warrant was a Violation of Defendant’s Fourth Amendment Rights – Suppression Granted

The Fourth Amendment, just like the regulations of a driverless car, does not end with the advent of new technology.  Here the use of a cell-site simulator to track down a criminal suspect without a warrant has led to the suppression of a large amount of narcotics seized from a New York City apartment. Logistically, this meant that the scales utilized and narcotics that were likely being sold by the defendant and are suppressed and cannot be used against the defendant at a criminal trial because this New York City tenant was subject to a Fourth Amendment violation by Drug Enforcement Administration Agents:

The Fourth Amendment guarantees that all people shall be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. CONST. amend. IV. “[T]he underlying command of the Fourth Amendment is always that searches and seizures be reasonable.” New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 337 (1985). “[A] Fourth Amendment search occurs when the government violates a subjective expectation of privacy that society recognizes as reasonable.” Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27, 33 (2001). Barring a few narrow exceptions, “warrantless searches ‘are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.'” City of Ontario v. Quon, 560 U.S. 746, 760 (2010) (quoting Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967)). The home has special significance under the Fourth Amendment. “‘At the very core’ of the Fourth Amendment ‘stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.'” Kyllo, 533 U.S. at 31 (quoting Silverman v. United States, 365 U.S. 505, 511 (1961)).

Although technology changes the law evolves to catch up with it. Here, a case nearly half a century old, is invoked by the Southern District of New York to suppress this cell-site simulator: Kyllo v. United StatesKyllo dealt with the production of marijuana, the growing of marijuana, and the use of thermal imaging to detect the grow house. Although widely available now (try a Google search), at the time thermal imaging was only available to the government and allowed them to have “through-the-wall surveillance,” a violation of one’s Fourth Amendment Rights. At the time it was break-through technology. Like Kyllo, “the DEA’s use of the cell-site simulator to locate [Defendant’s] apartment was an unreasonable search because the ‘pings’ from [Defendant’s] cell phone to the nearest cell site were not readily available ‘to anyone who wanted to look’ without the use of a cell-site simulator.” (citing United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276, 281 (1983); State v. Andrews, 227 Md. App. 350, *23 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2016)). The advent of such technology, as in Kyllo, does not allow the government to skirt the Fourth Amendment rights of the Defendant:

The use of a cell-site simulator constitutes a Fourth Amendment search within the contemplation of Kyllo. Absent a search warrant, the Government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device. Perhaps recognizing this, the Department of Justice changed its internal policies, and now requires government agents to obtain a warrant before utilizing a cellsite simulator. See Office of the Deputy Attorney General, Justice Department Announces Enhanced Policy for Use of Cell-Site Simulators, 2015 WL 5159600 (Sept. 3, 2015); Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Downing Testifies Before House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at Hearing on Geolocation Technology and Privacy, 2016 WL 806338 (Mar. 2, 2016) (“The Department recognizes that the collection of precise location information in real time implicates different privacy interests than less precise information generated by a provider for its business purposes.”).

The New York Law Journal Reported that “Southern District Judge William Pauley appears to be the first federal judge to rule that the use of a cell-site simulator, which picks up the ‘pings’ from a cellphone that would normally go to a cellphone tower, requires law enforcement to get a warrant to avoid violating the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” For those curious minds, the program and how it works:

In 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration (the “DEA”) conducted an investigation into an international drug-trafficking organization. As a part of that investigation, the DEA sought a warrant for pen register information and cell site location information (“CSLI”) for a target cell phone. Pen register information is a record from the service provider of the telephone numbers dialed from a specific phone. CSLI is a record of non-content-based location information from the service provider derived from “pings” sent to cell sites by a target cell phone. CSLI allows the target phone’s location to be approximated by providing a record of where the phone has been used….To isolate the location more precisely, the DEA deployed a technician with a cellsite simulator to the intersection of 177th Street and Broadway. A cell-site simulator — sometimes referred to as a “StingRay,” “Hailstorm,” or “TriggerFish” — is a device that locates cell phones by mimicking the service provider’s cell tower (or “cell site”) and forcing cell phones to transmit “pings” to the simulator. The device then calculates the strength of the “pings” until the target phone is pinpointed. (See Supp. Tr. at 40.) Activating the cell-site simulator, the DEA technician first identified the apartment building with the strongest ping. Then, the technician entered that apartment building and walked the halls until he located the specific apartment where the signal was strongest. (Supp. Tr. at 41.)

The evidence is suppressed – should the government wish to utilize such devices not readily available to the public, it must obtain a warrant before it enters a location and seizes contraband. The case is United States v. Raymond Lambis, 15cr734.

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