Lawyers in Baltimore have identified as many as 200 people who were sent to prison based on evidence police gathered with the help of a powerful cellphone tracking tool that a state court has now ruled was used illegally.

The ruling, issued Wednesday by Maryland’s second-highest court, said Baltimore police violated the Constitution when they used one of the tracking devices to catch a shooting suspect without first obtaining a search warrant. It was the first time an appeals court had weighed in directly on the legality of phone-trackers that have been widely — and mostly secretly — used by police agencies for nearly a decade.

“Cellphone users have an objectively reasonable expectation that their cellphones will not be used as real-time tracking devices, through the direct and active interference of law enforcement,” a panel of three judges on Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals wrote. The judges also accused Baltimore authorities of misleading the lower-court judge who had approved their use of the device, commonly known as a stingray.

That decision could imperil hundreds of criminal convictions in Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland, where police have used stingrays prolifically. An investigation last year by USA TODAY identified nearly 2,000 cases in Baltimore alone in which the police had secretly used stingrays to make arrests for everything from murder to petty thefts, typically without obtaining a search warrant.

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