Appeals court deals DNR setback in poaching case
St. Paul — Enforcement officials at the Minnesota DNR are evaluating their options after the Minnesota Court of Appeals last week upheld the decision of a lower court in an alleged deer-poaching case in west-central Minnesota.
Joshua Dwight Liebl, of Dawson, had faced a number of charges in late 2014 related to the alleged poaching. But Liebl and his attorney, Bill Peterson, of Bloomington, argued that state conservation officers violated Liebl’s constitutional rights when they placed a GPS device on his truck without a warrant.
In upholding a lower court’s ruling from April of this year, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled putting the device on Liebl’s truck amounted to an unreasonable search.
“We affirm the district court’s order suppressing evidence and dismissing criminal charges against respondent, because law enforcement’s installation and monitoring of a global positioning system mobile tracking device on respondent’s vehicle was an unreasonable search requiring suppression of the resulting evidence on which evidence the charges were based,” according to the appeal court’s decision.
Rather than a warrant, DNR officers had a “tracking order,” which had been granted in 2014 by a district judge after consultation with and approval from the Lac qui Parle County attorney.
“The officer who led this investigation did a great job and he followed the rules, consulted with the county attorney, and a judge signed off on the tracking order,” said Greg Salo, assistant director of the DNR Division of Enforcement. “I couldn’t ask him to do anything more than that.
“It’s a simple fix for us – as simple as filling out a different form,” he added.
While DNR conservation officers for years have used tracking orders, they don’t use them often, Salo said. Obtaining a warrant requires officers to show probable cause, while the threshold for obtaining tracking orders is lower.
“The main message is we will make adjustments on our end,” Salo said. “Our actions aren’t going to change at all. We’ll make this technical fix and keep busting people who are taking the resources illegally.”
According to the Minnesota Court of Appeals’ decision, on Sept. 24, 2014, Conservation Officer Ed Picht submitted a tracking order application “to covertly install and monitor a global positioning system (GPS) mobile tracking device on a truck owned by respondent Joshua Dwight Liebl.”
In his application, Picht, among other things, reported that he’d received “multiple citizen reports that implicated Liebl in hunting crimes.”
Early in the morning of Oct. 8, 2014, “Conservation Officer Jeffery Denz reviewed the tracking order and covertly installed a GPS device on Liebl’s truck while it was parked in the driveway of Liebl’s home,” according to last week’s decision.
Denz used the GPS to track the truck’s movements until Oct. 21.
“On October 21, Officer Picht applied for, secured, and executed search warrants for Liebl’s home and truck; the warrant applications relied in part on Officer Picht’s recitation of evidence resulting from the GPS tracking of Liebl’s truck,” according to the decision. “The searches revealed evidence, including (two) deer carcasses and more than 20 sets of deer antlers, that further implicated Liebl in hunting crimes.”
Liebl subsequently was arrested and charged.
Salo said the decision hasn’t yet been made about whether to appeal the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court. And in the future, officers will apply for warrants rather than tracking orders, he said.
“It’s not going to slow us down in how we do our job,” he said.