Court of Appeals upholds dismissal of poaching charges
ST. PAUL -- It is unlawful for law enforcement to place a tracking device on a vehicle without a search warrant, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday, upholding the Lac qui Parle County District Court's previous dismissal of 13 charges aga...
ST. PAUL - It is unlawful for law enforcement to place a tracking device on a vehicle without a search warrant, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday, upholding the Lac qui Parle County District Court's previous dismissal of 13 charges against a Dawson man in a high-profile deer poaching case.
A Department of Natural Resources conservation officer placed a warrantless GPS tracking device under the vehicle of Joshua Liebl, 38, in 2014.
That decision was an "unreasonable search" under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Judge John Smith wrote in a court order filed Monday.
On Monday afternoon, Liebl's attorney, Bill Peterson, called the court's affirmation of the ruling from the lower court "refreshing."
"After all, we're in an era of increased government surveillance of its citizens," Peterson said. "I think the decision was sound from a constitutional perspective."
The tracking device was placed on Liebl's pickup on the night of Sept. 24, 2014. Conservation officers had obtained a tracking order to place the device, not a search warrant.
The legal standard to obtain a tracking order is lower than that of a search warrant, Peterson said. Probable cause does not need to be proven; simply suspicion is sufficient.
The GPS device led conservation officers to arrest Liebl on the night of Oct. 21, 2014, while he was allegedly transporting a buck deer killed with a bullet. It was prior to the firearm season and in an area where only shotgun slugs would be legal.
The 13 counts filed against Liebl included charges of illegal transport, hunting out of season, hunting with a revoked or suspended license, using artificial lights, taking big game in a closed season, not tagging and failing to register big game.
At the time of Liebl's arrest, officers seized the eight-point buck from his pickup truck and a .243-caliber rifle and 12-gauge shotgun, as well as ammunition for both.
They executed a search warrant at his home where they seized a 74-pound piebald buck from his freezer and shoulder mounts and antlers from 28 deer, many of them trophy size.
The arrest was the result of a nearly five-year investigation, which began after Minnesota conservation officers received anonymous tips about Liebl. Officers believed Liebl was a repeat offender with a history of poaching, which led to the tracking device.
"Since 2004, Liebl has registered four deer," DNR enforcement district supervisor Lt. Gary Nordseth said in a January 2015 news release.
Peterson said that was not enough evidence for a warrant. He hopes the case decision will encourage agencies to ensure probable cause exists before tracking.
"You need specific information that there is criminal activity afoot, and not just this person has potentially violated the law in the past," Peterson said. "You've got to show that there is some present violation of the law."
In April, District Judge Thomas Van Hon dismissed all the charges, ruling that officers needed a search warrant when they secretly placed the device.
Van Hon had stated that the officers likely would have had probable cause to obtain a search warrant, but had not requested one, and thus, the issue of probable cause was not determined.
Lac qui Parle County Attorney Richard Stulz appealed Van Hon's ruling in late April, asking the Court of Appeals to find that Van Hon erred in the decision, "when the information submitted to the court prior to issuing the order was sufficient to support a finding of probable cause.''
In Monday's order from the Court of Appeals, Smith wrote that the tracking order had not been a legal equivalent to a search warrant.
"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," Smith wrote.
The court's Monday ruling was, in part, based on a U.S. Supreme Court drug case, United States v. Jones, which ruled that a GPS tracking device requires a ruling of probable cause.
"I think that some agencies have been a little more alert to following the case United States v. Jones, back in 2012, better than some of the other agencies," Peterson said.
Lac qui Parle County Attorney Stulz now has the option to petition the Minnesota Supreme Court for further review of the issue.
Stulz did not immediately return a request for comment Monday.
"I think they probably should have let it drop after Van Hon's decision," Peterson said. "Hopefully they'll see the handwriting on the wall."