For lack of a warrant for GPS tracking, alleged poacher goes free

Using evidence from a GPS tracking device, a search of Dwight Liebl's property produced this evidence of illegal hunting. Photo: Department of Natural Resources.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals today ruled that it was unconstitutional for a Department of Natural Resources officer to attach a GPS-based tracking device to the vehicle of a man he suspected was hunting big game illegally in Lac qui Parle County.

Conservation Officer Ed Picht got a judicial order allowing the tracking in September 2014 based on reports from other citizens and the fact Dwight Liebl’s hunting privileges had been revoked in Minnesota because of an illegal hunting charge in South Dakota.

After two weeks of monitoring the Dawson, Minn., man’s travels, the DNR authorities, using a search warrant, discovered two deer carcasses and more than 20 sets of deer antlers at his home.

The Star Tribune’s Dennis Anderson reported at the time that although Liebl registered only four deer between 2004 and 2013 — all males — the officers found evidence of 37 dead deer.

Liebl was arrested and is truck seized for forfeiture.

But a district court threw out the evidence, ruling the GPS device was an illegal search under the Constitution.

Today, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled the original tracking order is not the legal equivalent of a search warrant, which must be based on probable cause.

The state argued that the tracking order and the warrant are essentially the same thing, an assertion the court rejected.

“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,” Judge John Smith wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel. “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 [the 4th Amendment].”

“At least five U.S. Supreme Court Justices believed that technologically advanced tracking of a person’s location can in fact violate reasonable expectations of privacy,” the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a brief filed with the Court of Appeals. “[Liebl] spent time at his own home, someone else’s residence, bars or strip clubs, hospitals or clinics, places of worship, or engaging in political activity, all of which is unrelated to the suspected criminal conduct.”

“The privacy invasions inherent in prolonged location tracking underscore the importance of requiring a probable cause warrant before the government attaches a GPS device and tracks an individual’s movements, especially over a period of several weeks,” the ACLU said.