Understanding Technology Important in Defending Drug Case

stingraysDefending a client in a major drug case is a challenging and time consuming endeavor.  To effectively represent a client, a lawyer must often review hours of recorded conversations, videos, thousands of pages of documents and numerous photographs of co-conspirators and relevant locations.  In today’s world, a lawyer must not only know the law but also understand the technology law enforcement used in its investigation.  By understanding the technology, the criminal defense lawyer is in a better position to evaluate the case and make sure that law enforcement did not seize evidence or intercept communications in violation of the Constitution.  Set forth below is a brief summary of some of the technology used every day by law enforcement in Central Ohio undercover drug investigations.

The most basic device that law enforcement uses in drug investigations is a global positioning system known as G.P.S.  Small, inexpensive and easy to conceal, G.P.S. devices are used to monitor the movements of vehicles, drug shipments, money and cooperating witnesses in real time.  A G.P.S. device placed secretly on a car allows one agent to monitor different suspects and track their movements on a laptop or iPad.  A G.P.S. device can reveal meetings between co-conspirators, the exact location of drug/cash deliveries and also connect suspects to locations where evidence was seized.

Drug agents can also monitor suspects by tracking their cellular phones.  Surprisingly, there are numerous methods which exist to track cell phones and obtain information which include as follows:  1) pen registers; 2) trap and trace devices; 3) content wire taps; 4) pings; 5) tower dumps; 6) Stingrays/IMSI catchers.  In all but one of these, law enforcement needs cooperation with cellular companies like Verizon before obtaining subscriber information like incoming/outgoing calls, content of conversations, or location of the user.  As such, law enforcement must obtain either a warrant or an order from the Court with a subpoena to access this information.

However, a relatively new device, called a Stingray or IMSI catcher, and manufactured by Florida-based Harris Corporation, allows law enforcement to circumvent cellular companies and possibly the Courts.  Stingray is a hand-held device which simulates a cell tower.  When brought into a neighborhood, cell phones nearby will attempt to register with the device as if it were a real cell tower.  This allows law enforcement to identify the location of a cell phone if the number is known.  Law enforcement can also “lock” Stingray on a residence where a suspect is located and identify an unknown number from a commonly used “burner” phone by registering the phones inside “pinging” to the device.  Once the number is known, a warrant is obtained and communications can be intercepted while the unsuspected dealer continues his illegal activities.

Law enforcement have also begun using a technology called facial recognition software to investigate drug cases.  The F.B.I. is currently compiling a database of approximately 50 million photographs.  The software and database will allow law enforcement to identify unknown participants by simple taking pictures and using facial recognition to make an identification.  An interesting question looms as follows:  Can law enforcement force cell providers to turn over information regarding its subscribers?   If so, can law enforcement, with a subpoena, force a company like Facebook to use its facial recognition system to aid in identifying criminal suspects?

It seems that the days are long gone when the evidence in a drug case consisted solely of witnesses and phone records.  Today law enforcement uses cutting-edge technology right out of a spy thriller.  To represent a client effectively, the lawyer must understand this cutting edge technology to ensure that his client’s rights are protected.


If you have questions regarding a criminal case, call Columbus, Ohio Criminal Defense Attorney W. Joseph Edwards (614-309-0243) who has over 25 years experience representing clients in these types of legal matters.

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