Threat Management, Threat Intelligence

Federal Judge scolds FBI agent for improper stingray use

A federal judge in San Francisco scolded an FBI agent for the improper use of a stingray as well as an improper cellphone search stemming from warrants signed by the wrong type of judge.

The issue stems from an incident in April 2016, in which the FBI agent Stonie Carlson sought and obtained two warrants from an Alameda County Superior Court judge: one to search the phone or Donnell Artis and another to deploy a stingray to locate Chanta Hopkins.

Both were accused of engaging in credit card fraud, illegal possession of firearms, and other pending charges involving four other people

The warrant, however, wasn't valid since California law doesn't allow state judges to sign off on warrants for federal agents, something the agent apparently didn't know when he arrived to arrest Artis at his girlfriend's apartment.

Carlson found the apartment empty but the door unlocked, which he claimed was alarming since the apartment was a “high-crime area.” Contending that he feared for the well-being of anyone inside, he performed a safety sweep of the apartment when he reportedly discovered what he believed to be counterfeit credit cards in Artis's name.

Less than two weeks later Carlson managed to locate Artis but the suspect was to escape during a scuffle, leaving his phone behind. Authorities were then used Artis's phone to find Hopkins and Carlson petitioned a different county judge for a warrant to search the device.

The agent then went back to the same judge to authorize the use of the cell site simulator to locate Hopkins. The judge approved the use of the stingray and Carlson located and arrested Hopkins.

Hopkins's lawyer argued that the arrest was not only unlawful because the wrong state judge issued it but also because the search of Artis's apartment was unlawful. The lawyer also argued that Carlson was dishonest when he claimed that he saw Hopkins's phone number on Artis's phone and that he was not forthright when explaining to the county judge what a cell-site simulator actually does, according to court documents.

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria agreed with the arguments regarding the warrant and stingray use. Chhabria also ruled that the San Francisco County judge didn't have the jurisdiction to authorize stingray use in Alameda County.

“The two warrants were plagued by numerous errors, reflecting a pattern of systematic recklessness by law enforcement that militates in favor of suppressing the evidence (and against applying the 'good-faith exception' to the exclusionary rule)," Judge Chhabria said in a July 3 order. "This ruling is published separately to put the relevant actors in the criminal justice system on notice that California law prevents state judges from issuing search warrants to federal law enforcement officers, which means that federal law enforcement officers are not permitted to execute such warrants."

In a December 2017 hearing an assistant U.S. attorney attempted to argue that Carlson should be considered a sheriff, with all the rights of a state "peace officer” was part of a sheriff-federal task force.

Chhabria mocked the attorney, sarcastically asking that if “federal law said that all French poodles are sheriffs under California law, would that be OK?”

Prosecutors doubled down on the legality of their action in a July 17 hearing and reiterated that they were appealing Chhabria's order to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the illegal searches.

Both sides will return to court September 4. 

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