This judge's ruling may stop police from conducting sweeping cell phone surveillance

A federal judge threw out evidence obtained by U.S. law enforcement who used cell phone tracking without a warrant.
(Image credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Stingrays are portable devices known as "cell-site simulators" that pretend to be cell phone towers to collect location metadata on a mass scale from cell users in a given area. Their use by a number of state and federal law enforcement agencies is fraught with controversy on privacy and due process grounds (only a few states even require a warrant for stingray use), but police have so far encountered little legal push-back.

That is, until now. A federal judge in Manhattan ruled Tuesday that evidence collected with stingray surveillance conducted without a warrant would not be admissible in court. "The use of a cell-site simulator constitutes a Fourth Amendment search," wrote U.S. District Judge William Pauley, so "absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen's cell phone into a tracking device."

Pauley's landmark decision was hailed as a win by civil libertarians. "This opinion strongly reinforces the strength of our constitutional privacy rights in the digital age," said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler. Whether the ruling will change stingray use — after all, why do the surveillance if you can't use the results? — remains to be seen.

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Bonnie Kristian

Bonnie Kristian was a deputy editor and acting editor-in-chief of She is a columnist at Christianity Today and author of Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community (forthcoming 2022) and A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (2018). Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, USA Today, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.