A district judge has dismissed all 13 charges against a Dawson man in a poaching case that has attracted statewide attention.
District Judge Thomas Van Hon ruled that the state violated Joshua Liebl’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure when it secretly attached a GPS tracking device under his pickup truck without having a search warrant authorizing its use.
The tracking device was placed on the pickup on the night of Sept. 24, 2014.
Its use led conservation officers to arrest Liebl, 38, 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.
In his ruling filed Monday, Judge Van Hon agreed with defense attorney William Peterson of Bloomington that a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court in a 2012 case had made it clear.
A search warrant is required to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle. A search warrant can only be obtained if a judge has found “probable cause’’ to believe a crime could be committed.
The state had sought and received a judge’s order for a “tracking warrant’’ to place the GPS unit on the truck.
The tracking warrant required meeting a lesser legal standard of seeking information “relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.’’ Judge Van Hon stated in his ruling that the tracking order application “contains sufficient information to support a probable cause determination for a warrant to attach a GPS device, if the application had been an application for warrant and if the tracking order had been a warrant.’’
Since a search warrant had not been obtained, all of the evidence seized in the case is considered “fruit of the poisonous tree’’ and cannot be used in court.
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. Peterson in a news release termed the ruling an “important victory for the rule of law and for the privacy of sportsmen of Minnesota.”
He told the Tribune that he felt good going into the case. “I think we had good law on our side,’’ he said in reference to the 2012 Supreme Court case on the use of GPS tracking devices.
Peterson said he does not necessarily agree with Judge Van Hon’s memorandum in which the judge indicated that the investigating conservation officer could have successfully obtained a search warrant in this case had he sought one. “But the simple fact was he didn’t,’’ Peterson said.
The attorney said he believes that investigators were acting on first impressions — the belief that his client had a bit of a reputation — and not necessarily on the basis of probable cause that he was allegedly committing a crime. Peterson said he believes the case will have a significant impact across the state. It makes it clear that conservation officers must follow the same requirements as police or sheriff’s officers in seeking searching warrants to use GPS devices, he said.
Lac qui Parle County Attorney Rick Stulz said his office had just received the decision and was reviewing it.
The county attorney said they had not made a decision on whether to pursue an appeal, but would have to make any such decision within a week or so. “I think it’s pretty clear in the order what the judge’s rationale was,’’ Stulz said.