Saturday, November 26, 2016

MN Court of Appeals Rules GPS Tracking Order Not Legal Equivalent of Search Warrant

The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently ruled that an order authorizing installation of a GPS tracking device on vehicle owned by a person suspected of hunting and big game violations was not the legal equivalent of a search warrant because there was no contemporaneous finding of probable cause in the application procedure and affirmed the lower court's finding that it amounted to an unconstitutional warrantless search and suppressed all resulting evidence.

In State v. Liebl,--- N.W.2d ----, A16-0618, 2016 WL 6077268 (Minn. Ct. App. Oct. 17, 2016) an officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources submitted to the issuing court a signed and sworn application requesting judicial authorization, pursuant to Minn.Stat. § 626A.37 (2014), to covertly install and monitor a global positioning system (GPS) mobile tracking device on a truck owned by Joshua Liebl.

Liebl was suspected of and the application recited various criminal offenses including taking big game without a license, trespassing, the unlawful use of artificial lights to take big game, i.e., ‘shining,’ and transporting illegally taken big game.” The application also recited the “facts and circumstances” that led the conservation officer to suspect Liebl of these criminal violations of Minnesota's game and fish laws (hunting crimes), as well as the fact that the officer had received multiple citizen reports that implicated Liebl in hunting crimes, physical corroborating evidence and the officer's belief that using GPS to “track[ ] the movements of [Liebl's truck] w[ould] facilitate the investigation of [Liebl's suspected hunting crimes] and that the information likely to be obtained by monitoring the [GPS] device [would be] relevant to the on-going criminal investigation.” The same day, the court issued the requested order (tracking order), which complied with the relevant statutory mandates, under Minn.Stat. § 626A.37, subds. 2–4, as to contents, time period and extensions, and nondisclosure of such orders".  Id.

Approximately two weeks later the GPS tracking device was covertly installed on defendants vehicle and its movements were monitored for 13 days thereafter when the officer used the tracking information, inter alia, to obtain a search warrant of defendants vehicle and residence.  Following execution of the search warrant and seizure of incriminating evidence including 2 deer carcasses and approximately 20 sets of antlers, defendant was arrested and vehicle seized for forfeiture.

Defendant then moved to "...suppress the state's evidence and to dismiss the charges against him, arguing that the evidence resulting from conservation officers' GPS tracking of his truck must be suppressed because the GPS tracking was an unreasonable search under both the U.S. and Minnesota Constitutions. Liebl also argued that Minn.Stat. § 626A.42 (2014) provided an independent basis for suppression of the evidence resulting from the GPS tracking.  In opposition, the state denied the applicability of Minn.Stat. § 626A.42 on the facts of this case; argued that the GPS tracking was a reasonable search because it was conducted in compliance with Minn.Stat. §§ 626A.35–.39 (2014); and alternatively argued that, even if the GPS tracking was an unreasonable search, the resulting evidence nonetheless was admissible under a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule."

In  affirming the district court's suppression of evidence in this case the court of appeals held "Because the tracking order was not based on a probable-cause finding by the issuing court, the tracking order was not a valid substitute for a search warrant. Consequently, we reject the state's legal-equivalency argument and conclude that conservation officers' warrantless GPS tracking of Liebl's truck was an unreasonable search that violated U.S. Const. amend. IV, irrespective of compliance with Minn.Stat. §§ 626A.35–.39 and existence of probable cause."  The Court of Appeals went on to hold that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule  based on law enforcement's reliance on the "pattern and practice" regarding warrantless tracking devices in Minnesota, did not apply in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in  United States v. Jones, ––– U.S. ––––, 132 S.Ct. 945, 949, 181 L.Ed.2d 911 (2012) (“[T]he Government's installation of a GPS device on a target's vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle's movements, constitutes a ‘search’ ” within the meaning of U.S. Const. amend. IV).

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