Warrant Now Required For One Type of Federal Surveillance, and May Soon Follow for State Law Enforcement

Steven Graziano, MJLST Staffer

As technology has advanced over the recent decades, law enforcement agencies have expanded their enforcement techniques. One example of these tools is cell-site simulators, otherwise known as sting rays. Put simply, sting rays act as a mock cell tower, detect the use of a specific phone number in a given range, and then uses triangulation to locate the phone. However, the recent, heightened awareness and criticism directed towards government and law enforcement surveillance has affected their potential use. Specifically, many federal law enforcement agencies have been barred from their use without a warrant, and there is current federal legislation pending, which would require state and local law enforcement agents to also gain a warrant before using a sting ray.

Federal law enforcement agencies, specifically Immigration, Secret Service, and Homeland Security agents must obtain search warrants before using sting rays, as announced by the Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security’s shift in policy comes after the Department of Justice made a similar statement. The DOJ has affirmed that although they had previously used cell-cite simulators without a warrant, going forward they will require law enforcement agencies gain a search warrant supported by probable cause. DOJ agencies directed by this policy include the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. This shift in federal policy was largely in response to pressures put upon Washington by civil liberties groups, as well as the shift in American public’s attitude towards surveillance generally.

Although these policies only affect federal law enforcement agencies, there have also been steps taken to expand the warrant requirement for sting rays to state and local governments. Federal lawmakers have introduced the Cell-Site Simulator Act of 2015, also known as the Stingray Privacy Act, to hold state and local law enforcement to the same Fourth Amendment standards as the federal government. The law has been proposed in the House of Representatives by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and was designated to a congressional committee on November 2, 2015, which will consider it before sending it to the entire House or Senate. In addition to requiring a warrant, the act also requires prosecutors and investigators to disclose to judges that the technology they intend to use in execution of the warrant is specifically a sting ray. The proposed law was partially a response to a critique of the federal warrant requirement, name that it did not compel state or local law enforcement to also obtain a search warrant.

The use of advanced surveillance programs by federal, state, and local law enforcement, has been a controversial subject recently. Although law enforcement has a duty to fully enforce that law, and this includes using the entirety of its resources to detect possible crimes, it must still adhere to the constitutional protections laid out in the Fourth Amendment when doing so. Technology chances and advances rapidly, and sometimes it takes the law some time to adapt. However, the shift in policy at all levels of government, shows that the law may be beginning to catch up to law enforcement’s use of technology.

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