TRENTON—It was Eliezer Medina’s cell phone that betrayed him.
When burglars broke into a Paramus store in November 2013 and stole $40,000 in cash, cell records indicated Medina’s mobile phone was in the vicinity.
The phone also happened to be nearby when burglars hit a second Paramus store three weeks later and took $50,000 in cash after the closing hours.
And the FBI tracked a phone belonging to his brother when at least two men cut the alarm wires of a Pennsauken business and made off with $203,000 in cash.
On Wednesday, Medina, 37, of Lancaster, Pa., was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for his role in a string of burglaries throughout northern and southern New Jersey.
Medina, who was charged with his older brother, José Medina, pleaded guilty in July, admitting to burglarizing at least three stores in Paramus and Pennsauken, and stealing approximately $625,000. U.S. District Judge Mary L. Cooper in Trenton also ordered the restitution of the money that was taken.
Cell phone surveillance by law enforcement agencies has been growing nationwide. All cell phones constantly search for a signal, even when no calls are being made, and continually re-scan several times a minute, always seeking the closest cell phone towers that will provide the strongest signal — seen by the number of bars displayed by a phone. The function cannot be turned off while the phone is getting a wireless signal. The phone also has a GPS chip that is also used for tracking.
Two men, Daniel “Tokyo” Gatson and Anthony Hanks, currently on trial in U.S. District Court in Newark, face charges in an interstate burglary spree in which they allegedly stole millions of dollars of cash and jewelry and caused tens of thousands of dollars in property damage. According to court filings, investigators connected the burglaries to Gatson through cell phone records that provided a trail coinciding exactly with dozens of major home break-ins reported to police.
Gatson has argued the cell phone records constituted unlawful search and seizure, violating his constitutional rights.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the technology to track has evolved to the use of so-called “Stingrays,” or “cell site simulators” or “IMSI catchers,” which the group said were cell phone surveillance devices that mimic cell phone towers and send out signals to trick cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and providing identifying information.
Even license plates are being tracked now by law enforcement agencies, said ACLU officials, through the use of automatic license plate readers on police cars, road signs and bridges, which captured the license plate number, date, time, and location of every vehicle on the road.
ACLU senior staff attorney Alexander Shalom said law enforcement agencies should be required to obtain warrants based on evidence of probable cause before gaining access to cell phone records.
“That’s important,” he said. “Cell phone data provides intimate detail of your life.”
In New Jersey, an ACLU lawsuit led to a change in state law mandating a warrant. Federal law, however, does not necessarily require such safeguards, said Shalom.
The tracking of Eliezer Medina went beyond his cell phone. In the criminal complaint against him, the FBI said electronic records also showed his EZ-Pass toll transponder crossing the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge between Pennsylvania and New Jersey shortly before, and then after at least one of the burglaries.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, the brothers allegedly followed a pattern in each burglary, visiting the targeted stores the day before, to check out the emergency exit door, disabling electronic alarm systems, and using pry bars and vertical cuts to break into the store safes.
In some cases, magnets were used to disable alarm sensors on the emergency exit, or tape was place over surveillance cameras, the FBI said in court filings.
Charges against Medina’s brother are still pending. He is charged with conspiracy to transport stolen goods in interstate commerce.