This Note proposes four factors courts should consider when asked to determine whether law enforcement’s use of a cell-site simulator constituted a Fourth Amendment search. The first asks courts to consider whether the cell-site simulator surveillance infringed on a constitutionally protected area, such as the home. The second asks courts to consider the duration of the cell-site simulator surveillance. The third asks courts to consider whether the cell-site simulator surveillance was conducted actively or passively. The fourth asks courts to focus on the nature and depth of the information obtained as a result of the cell-site simulator surveillance. If, after analyzing these four factors, a court concludes that law enforcement officers conducted a Fourth Amendment search, the court must then ask whether the search was reasonable. Cell-site simulators are generally used in the “enterprise of ferreting out crime.” Thus, if law enforcement’s use of a cell-site simulator amounts to a Fourth Amendment search, that search should be considered unreasonable, and therefore violative of the Fourth Amendment, if it was conducted without a warrant.
The Note also provides background information regarding the development and use of cell-site simulators at the federal, state, and local levels. Part II lays out a general framework for analyzing Fourth Amendment search and seizure cases. Part II.A concludes that law enforcement’s use of a cell-site simulator does not constitute a Fourth Amendment seizure, but Part II.B argues that it may constitute a Fourth Amendment search. Part II.B then delves into Fourth Amendment search case law, chronicling several key Supreme Court decisions that apply both the traditional, physical trespass test and the Katz reasonable expectation of privacy test to various electronic surveillance techniques. Part II.B next analyzes the three cell-site simulator cases referenced earlier in this Part—Maryland v. Andrews, United States v. Lambis, and Jones v. United States—and concludes that the courts in Andrews and Jones (D.C.) came to overly broad conclusions in holding that law enforcement’s use of cell-site simulators categorically violates individuals’ expectations of privacy. Part III proposes four factors courts should consider to determine whether, on a case-by-case basis, law enforcement’s use of a cell-site simulator constitutes a Fourth Amendment search. Part IV addresses the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement and concludes that the warrant preference model for determining reasonableness is best-suited to cell-site simulators.
Recommended CitationLara M. McMahon, Limited Privacy in “Pings:” Why Law Enforcement’s Use of Cell-Site Simulators Does Not Categorically Violate the Fourth Amendment, 77 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 981 (2020).
Available at: https://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/wlulr/vol77/iss2/9