By Ian Wendrow
A Minnesota man accused of poaching deer has won a court decision to suppress evidence implicating him in illegal hunting because a conservation officer had no warrant to track his truck with a GPS device.
Lack of the warrant violated Joshua Liebl’s constitutional right to be free of unreasonable searches, the state Court of Appeals ruled. It refused to reinstate game and fish law charges against Liebl.
The court upheld a Lac qui Parle County District Court order tossing out the evidence and the case. It was brought forward by Conservation Officer Edward Picht, who got a tracking order but not a search warrant, searched Liebl’s home, truck and parents’ home in 2014 based on information obtained under the tracking order.
Picht and other DNR officers seized from the home in Dawson “elk antlers, deer antlers and an unregistered and untagged piebald deer,” according to the facts summary within the State of Minnesota’s appeal. A freshly killed whitetail buck was also found in Liebl’s truck, shot with a rifle bullet, two weeks before firearm deer season began.
The prosecution has until Wednesday to decide to ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the case.
That seems unlikely, said Liebl’s attorney William Peterson of Bloomington, Minnesota.
“Part of the problem is two and a half years before this illegal search was done, the United States Supreme Court came down with the decision of United States vs. Jones,” Peterson said.
That 2012 decision established the rule that attaching a GPS device to a vehicle constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment. As a result, a law officer must obtain a search warrant to gather evidence with a GPS tracking device, Peterson said.
The appeals court opinion written by Judge John Smith said a tracking order isn’t legally equivalent to a search warrant because it requires authorities to have a higher level of proof to conduct a search.
The media liaison for the Minnesota attorney general declined to comment, saying the matter is in the hands of the county attorney. The county attorney has not responded to media inquiries.
According to court documents, Picht pursued his investigation under a hunch that Libel was poaching. His suspicion rested mainly on eyewitness testimony from citizens and a prior citation for “shining” to illegally hunt deer in South Dakota. Minnesota had revoked Liebl’s hunting privileges based on the South Dakota case.
Conservation Officer Jeffrey Denz assisted Picht by attaching the GPS to Liebl’s truck and monitoring his movements, according to the defense brief. Denz alerted Picht whenever Liebl’s truck slowed and stopped in areas that did not match up with street intersections or traffic lights.
Picht visited some of these sites and observed signs of poaching such as blood, fur and track marks from dragging a carcass, according to court documents.
Liebl faced charges that included transporting illegal big game, failing to tag big game, hunting without a license, hunting big game out of season and other poaching-related offenses.