Florida Case Shines Unprecedented Spotlight on “Stingray” Surveillance Technology

by John D. Ioakimidis, Esq,

In an interesting case out of Florida, the public is getting detailed information about the secretive stingray fake cell phone tower which is being used by law enforcement officials to track particular cell phones.  Up until now, we have had general information about how these devices work.  However, a transcript released in a Florida case has provided us with the most detailed description of how this device works. On September 13, 2008 a Tallahassee woman was raped and her purse, which contained her Verizon cell phone, was stolen.  Detectives contacted Verizon and obtained real time ping information from Verizon.  That information gave the police general information about where that phone was located but the police needed detailed location information.  The thinking was that if they found the phone, they would find the rapist. The police obtained the unique IMSI identifier of the victim’s phone and started cruising the streets of the general area in which Verizon’s real time ping data suggested the phone was located.  The stingray device scans all the cell phones in an area and tries to identify a particular phone through the phone’s unique IMSI number. Once it identifies the phone it forces that particular phone to transmit data at full strength to the stingray tower, which is a fake cell phone tower, greatly depleting the battery of the phone.  This allows them to pinpoint the exact location of the cell phone.  Just like a cell phone registers with a carrier’s cell phone tower, the stingray device forces the phone to register with the stingray tower.  This allows the police to pinpoint the exact location of the cell phone.  The stingray device was able to determine that the cell phone was located in a particular apartment building but could not tell the police the exact apartment in the building.  Officers then went door to door with a hand held stingray device and stood outside each door holding the device.  The officers located the phone inside apartment number 251, knocked on the door, and when the door was opened stuck a foot in the door and entered the apartment.  The police conducted a “protective sweep” of the apartment and forced everyone to wait until the police were able to obtain a search warrant allowing them to search the apartment.  The search resulted in the recovery of the purse and cell phone leading the police to make an arrest.  The defendant challenged the police action based on a lack of probable cause. The trial court denied the motion ruling that an “exigent circumstances” exception to the probable cause requirement of the 4th Amendment applied to the case because of the risk of the destruction of evidence.  However, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court and overturned the denial of the motion and ordered a new trial.

The testimony regarding the use of the stingray device was testimony given at the trial.  This is the first time this level of detail about stingray has ever been made public.  The officer providing the testimony also stated that he had used this device “200 or more times” and that the device had been “100% percent” accurate.  After this news became public, the vice president of the Florida ACLU sent a Freedom of Information request to the local police requesting all the documentation regarding the use of the stingray device.  After communicating with the police officer who had custody of this information that he would be allowing the ACLU vice president access to the documents, the door was suddenly shut closed.  The ACLU was informed that the officer had been deputized by the United States Marshall’s Office and since he was now a federal law enforcement officer a state Freedom of Information request did not apply to him.  The ACLU then filed a an emergency motion asking a Florida court to order the release of the requested information. It now turns out that apparently the requested information has been moved hundreds of miles away further thwarting the ACLU’s effort to obtain the requested documents.  There is clearly a frantic effort by state and federal officials to do everything they can to keep this information secret.  It will be interesting to see if the courts step in and stop the government from taking deliberate acts to thwart the public’s right to know to what extent the government will go to track us.

James Dimeas is an award winning Chicago criminal defense attorney and author with more than 23 years of experience aggressively representing his clients facing criminal charges.  If you have a criminal case in Illinois, contact me in Chicago (312-229-5500), DuPage and Kane (630-504-2096) or Lake (847-696-6458) for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your legal options.

Additional Resources:

State of Florida v. James L. Thomas, 2008 CF 3350A, In the Circuit Court for the Second Judicial Circuit, In and For Leon County, Florida, Transcript.

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