A city judge threw out key evidence in the 2014 killing of a woman in Northwest Baltimore because police obtained it after using a powerful cellphone tracking device — the latest fallout from years of authorities concealing how they deployed the device.
On Monday, Circuit Judge Yolanda Tanner suppressed evidence found in Robert Copes' apartment "with great reluctance." Investigators said they found the blood of 34-year-old Ina Jenkins in Copes' apartment. Jenkins' burned body was found dumped across the street.
Homicide Detective Bryan Kershaw testified that he had suspected Jenkins' killer lived nearby and sought a court order to trace a phone number she had once used to call a relative. The agency's phone tracking unit traced the phone to the apartment, and Kershaw testified that Copes, 39, let him inside.
Copes' trial on first-degree murder and use of a deadly weapon was to begin this week.
Last month, the state's second-highest court ruled that police have been improperly using the cell site simulator — often referred to as a stingray — without a search warrant, which unlike a court order requires a showing of probable cause. Local authorities had been concealing use of the device as part of a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI, which came to light as part of another court case in late 2014.
Tanner said she believed police investigators acted in good faith, following the procedures that had been put in place by the city law department and the state's attorney's office.
"It was nonetheless an unconstitutional search," Tanner said.
Prosecutors did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jenkins' family members said they met with prosecutors after the hearing and were told that they intended to appeal the ruling.
Baltimore became a focal point in 2014 for the growing national debate over the use of stingray technology, which mimics a cellphone tower and helps pinpoint a device's location by triggering all phones in an area to connect to it.
Police typically used the device after obtaining court orders that did not explicitly describe the technology, because authorities agreed not to disclose its use. Prosecutors agreed to drop cases when there was a risk that the technology would be revealed.
Such nondisclosure agreements were in place around the country, but the Baltimore pact was one of the first to be revealed. Baltimore police later disclosed that they had used the stingray device thousands of times without disclosing details about how it worked.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that "people have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in real-time cell phone location information," and that using the stingray without a search warrant represented a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Kershaw testified that he was preoccupied with finding a man seen in surveillance photos with Jenkins in the days before she died. He believed that man was his suspect. Detectives canvassed the area for several days, and plainclothes units set up surveillance in hopes of seeing the man.
In the meantime, detectives were given three possible phone numbers for Jenkins, and Kershaw asked the department's Advanced Technical Team to find one of the phones after determining it was still in use.
Copes answered his door in boxers and let Kershaw inside, the detective said. Kershaw noticed a collection of cleaning supplies, carpet that had been torn up, and bleach stains. The phone police were looking for was in the home, and police later obtained a search warrant that turned up Jenkins' blood.
"They had a photo and a phone number. Without the [cell site simulator] being used, they would have absolutely nothing," said Copes' defense attorney, Brandon Mead.
Copes took the stand during the motions hearing and testified that the phone belonged to him.
Copes testified that he had let Jenkins, "a friend of mine, a very dear friend," use his phone. Copes said he couldn't recall the number.
"The only thing on my mind is the Bible," he said.
Assistant State's Attorney Michael Dunty told Tanner that police had made general references in the court order application that they would be tracking a phone. Dunty also noted that Copes had consented to letting Kershaw inside his apartment, and that Kershaw's recognition of Copes as the man in the photo could not be excluded.
Tanner said it was true that Kershaw might have eventually found Copes on his own. "I can't play the 'what if' game with the Constitution," she said, lamenting that it protects people from illegal searches even when the defendant is "likely guilty."
Rodney Jenkins, 47, of Pasadena, said the court ruling was frustrating, particularly because the family has waited so long for the case to come to trial.
"It seems like a very long process, with a lot of hurdles," said Jenkins, the victim's brother.
As the hearing concluded, prosecutors informed Tanner that police had filed new charges against Copes in connection with a rape that occurred in the 1990s.
"You're not done yet, buddy boy," Jenkins said to Copes as Copes was led out of the room.