Florida, The Fourth Amendment, and Cell Phones

The Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect us from unreasonable searches or seizures by the police. In Florida, however, it’s recently come out that police have been using a device called a “stingray” to track and exchange data with cell phones without bothering to get a warrant. Use of this device has been under scrutiny since 2012.

Why no warrant, you ask?  Because the police signed a non-disclosure agreement with the stingray manufacturer.

Most recently, the ACLU made a public records request to inspect documents regarding the use of a stingray device by a Sarasota police detective. Only hours before the ACLU was to inspect the documents, the U.S. Marshall’s service swooped in and seized the documents, claiming they had deputized the police detective, and that the records were therefore the property of the federal government. The ACLU has filed an emergency petition for writ of mandamus in state court, but it’s unclear what effect, if any, this will have on the federal government’s action.

The Fourth Amendment exists for a good reason – to protect us from government intrusion. The Florida public records law also exists for a good reason – to allow Florida citizens access to their government’s records in order to hold their government accountable. What’s happening now is, at best, undermining what our laws are intended to do.

If you have a criminal case it’s possible that the police have monitored your cell phone location without a warrant. Just how much information the police have been able to get from criminal defendants’ cell phones remains to be seen. What’s most concerning about devices like the “Stingray” is that we still don’t know how far the police have gone in violation of the Fourth Amendment.