Federal Court Rules Warrant Needed For Stingray Use

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Your cell phone data may now be better protected thanks to a new federal ruling.

An appeals court ruled law enforcement must obtain a search warrant to collect records from cellphone towers used to track movements of suspects.

The Tallahassee Police Department has used those devices from FDLE called stingrays without search warrants.

A TPD spokesman referred us to FDLE for comment.

An FDLE statement says that agency is reviewing the court's ruling.

It comes after a three judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed Wednesday with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The court ruled cellphone data is protected by the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

The ruling means law enforcement officers must meet the higher legal standard of probable cause to gain access to the data.

If you carry a cell phone, your privacy could be compromised.

A civil rights group makes that claim about a device the Tallahassee Police Department uses.

It started at Tallahassee's Berkshire Manor Apartments.

Tallahassee Police were able to track down sex abuse suspect James Thomas' apartment by finding the cell phone of his accuser.

But TPD Investigator Chris Corbitt refused to explain how.

Thomas' attorney Daren Shippy wanted to know.

"I felt the technology and the information related to it was important for the court to hear."

After Shippy's motion to make Corbitt testify was granted, Corbitt's testimony was sealed.

The American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU successfully argued that testimony should be made public.

It revealed Corbitt used a device called a stingray.

The device mimics a cell phone tower.

Police use the unique serial number of the phone to find it's location.

However, Corbitt testified the stingray sorts through data from other area phones before locking in on the target phone.

"It's certainly problematic if you're collecting data from other phones other than your target device," said John Sawicki, a cell phone and computer expert.

Sawicki says the larger issue is stingray searches like the Thomas case are being done secretively and without a search warrant.

Corbitt testified he went door to door and window to window in the private property apartment complex to track the phone and didn't have a search warrant.

The ACLU also requested stingray use documents from the Sarasota Police Department.

But the U.S. Marshals intervened and took those documents.

"I would certainly be concerned about an invasion of my privacy," said Sawicki. "More than that, I'd be be concerned the federal government is going to extreme lengths to cover up that invasion of my privacy," he said.

We made multiple requests to TPD for an interview, but have yet to get one.

Until the Thomas case, it was not publicly known TPD was using the stingray.

Corbitt testified TPD has been using stingrays since 2007 and has used the devices roughly 200 times.

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