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For the first time ever, a federal judge has dismissed court evidence obtained by United States law enforcement using a stingray surveillance device.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan ruled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) violated defendant Raymond Lambis’ rights when they searched his Washington Heights apartment without a warrant.

Pauley did not mince his words in the decision:

“Absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device.”

According to Pauley’s 14-page ruling, the DEA sought a warrant for the numbers dialed from a specific phone and for the cell towers to which the phone was connecting as part of a 2015 investigation into an international drug operation.

The DEA determined someone was using the phone near 177th Street and Broadway. To pinpoint its exact location, Pauley explains, federal investigators used a stingray.

stingray
Source: Mother Jones

Also known as “cell site simulators,” stingrays mimic a cell phone tower by forcing local mobile devices to transmit a “ping” back to the device. The strength of the ping varies with location, which helps to explain why law enforcement use stingrays to track down suspects.

To learn more about stingrays, please click here.

In this case, the stingray led the DEA to Lambis’ apartment. The investigators conducted what they called a consensual search of the defendant’s home, where they found narcotics, three digital scales, empty zip-lock bags, and other paraphernalia.

There’s just one problem for Pauley: the DEA never obtained a warrant to specifically search the apartment.

The judge wrote:

“Here, the use of the cell-site simulator to obtain more precise information about the target phone’s location was not contemplated by the original warrant application. If the government had wished to use a cell-site simulator, it could have obtained a warrant.”

While lower courts have arrived at similar rulings, Nathan Wessler, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union believes this is the first ruling of its kind at the federal level.

He expressed as much to Ars Technica:

“This is the first federal ruling I know of in which a judge squarely ruled that the Fourth Amendment requires police to get a warrant to use a stingray, and suppressed evidence derived from warrantless use of the technology.”

As of this writing, it is unclear whether prosecutors will appeal Pauley’s ruling.