Thursday, May 24, 2012

GPS Use Illegal in Kentucky Drug Bust


By BRETT BARROUQUERE Associated Press 

LOUISVILLE, Ky - When Kentucky State Troopers stopped 49-year-old Robert Dale Lee on Interstate 75 in September 2011, they knew he would be coming their way and what to look for in his truck.

The Drug Enforcement Administration had been following Lee's truck from Chicago using a GPS — a tracking device placed on the vehicle as part of a multi-state drug probe — and troopers found 150 pounds of marijuana in the vehicle.

Now, a federal judge has ruled the stash inadmissible in the case against Lee because the DEA and troopers didn't have a warrant to place the device on the truck.

"In this case, the DEA agents had their fishing poles out to catch Lee," Thapar wrote. "Admittedly, the agents did not intend to break the law. But, they installed a GPS device on Lee's car without a warrant in the hope that something might turn up."

Lee is charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana. No trial date has been set. He remains in federal custody at the Laurel County Detention Center.

Kyle Edelen, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Lexington, said prosecutors were reviewing the ruling and evaluating whether to appeal Thapar's decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court in January struck down law enforcement's use of GPS tracking in investigations without a warrant. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the 5-member majority that it was the attachment of the device that violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. That case involved a GPS placed on the Jeep of suspected Washington, D.C., drug kingpin Antoine Jones. The ruling overturned Jones' conviction and life sentence.

Lee's attorney, Michael Murphy of Lexington, said the only evidence against Lee was the marijuana found in the truck. Murphy said he based his argument in part on the Jones case.

"If they are going to be that intrusive on our lives, they should do it under the supervision of a court," said Murphy, a former federal prosecutor.

Lee's case predated that ruling, so the admissibility of the marijuana remained in question until Thapar's decision.
The case arose after a cooperating witness told investigators that Lee, who previously served 42 months in federal prison for gun and drug convictions, had been buying marijuana in Chicago and bringing it back to eastern Kentucky in his truck.

DEA Task Force Officer Brian Metzger placed the GPS tracking device on Lee's truck on Sept. 2, 2011, while Lee met with a federal probation officer in London, Ky. No judge had authorized the use of the device.

Thapar noted that three days later, DEA agents noticed that Lee went to Chicago and tracked him as he returned to Kentucky. Metzger contacted Trooper Matt Hutti, gave him a description of Lee's truck and told him "it probably contained marijuana" and that the trooper "would have to obtain his own PC, probable cause, for a traffic stop," Thapar wrote.

DEA agents stayed in touch with Hutti, who stationed himself along I-75 near Mount Vernon with a drug-sniffing dog. After spotting Lee driving without a seat belt, Hutti pulled the truck over and got consent for a search.
Inside, Thapar wrote, Hutti, another trooper and the dog found 150 pounds of marijuana. After the dogs found the stash, Lee confessed — a "direct result of the traffic stop and search," Thapur wrote.

But, Thapar wrote, the DEA didn't rely on any binding court precedent in executing the search. Neither the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals nor the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on the issue of GPS surveillance when the agent placed the tracking device on Lee's truck.

"Without GPS tracking data, the DEA agents would not have known that Lee traveled to Chicago (his source for drugs), that he was returning to Kentucky along I-75, or his exact position," Thapur wrote.

Murphy said given Lee's criminal record, a conviction in this case would have meant at least 20 years in federal prison.

"Unfortunately, my client will have to spend at least another month in custody," Murphy said. "But, this turned out good for him."
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