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Warrantless GPS Not a Shortcut for Drug Investigators, Judge Panel Finds [FEATURE]

Submitted by David Borden on (Issue #663)
Politics & Advocacy

Special to the Chronicle by Clarence Walker

[Editor's Note: Houston-based Clarence Walker has spent more than two decades as an investigative crime journalist, associate producer for cable TV criminal justice shows, and stringer for wire services. He has also published extensively in daily and weekly newspapers in Texas and New York, and legal journals. Look for more on GPS surveillance and the Antoine Jones case, including a full-length interview with the current Supermax resident, in the next week or two.]

In an August ruling that created a split with federal circuit courts in New York and California, the US Court of Appeals for District of Columbia became the first in the land to hold that police cannot use a Global Positioning System (GPS) device to track a person's movement for an extended period of time without a warrant.

Police placed a warrantless GPS Tracking Device on Jones' vehicle.
Just three weeks later, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld warrantless GPS tracking in similar circumstances. Given the rifts in the federal circuit courts, and now, among the differing appeals courts, the issue is almost certainly headed for the US Supreme Court for resolution.

The DC ruling in US v. Lawrence Maynard came in the case of two conjoined defendants, Lawrence Maynard and Antoine Jones, who were convicted of cocaine conspiracy offenses in the DC district court. Jones, the owner of a Maryland night club, had been targeted by the FBI and other federal and state police agencies as a major player in a multi-million dollar cocaine ring with ties to a Mexico-based organized crime group. Investigators said Jones and his co-conspirators distributed cocaine throughout the DC metro area.

In September 2005, Judge Paul Friedman of the federal district court issued a warrant for the FBI to install a GPS device on the Cherokee Jeep that Jones drove. For unknown reasons the investigators allowed the GPS warrant to expire, rendering it invalid. Why agents never requested another warrant remains unclear, but they went ahead and placed a GPS on Jones' vehicle.

The warrantless GPS produced 3,106 pages of data showing the movement of the vehicle at 10-second intervals. US attorneys said the data evidence placed Jones at a Fort Washington, Maryland residence where FBI in 2005 recovered 97 kilos of cocaine and almost a million dollars. Jones was arrested the same day of the raid and held without bond on multiple drug trafficking and conspiracy charges.

The first trial went disastrously for prosecutors. Jurors in the case handed down numerous acquittals and deadlocked on multiple other charges. After the trial, jurors told the Washington Post that the government had failed to prove its case. They wondered why none of the defendants were caught with or near the kilos of cocaine worth millions and why neither Jones nor his associates were ever photographed at the location where the drugs were found. And they questioned the GPS evidence, which they said only placed Jones' vehicle in the immediate area.

While Jones was acquitted of the most serious charge of conspiracy, he remained in jail pending retrial on the remaining charges.  The feds did better the second time around. Using the same GPS and informant evidence as in the first trial, they managed to convince a jury to convict Jones this time. He was sentenced to life in prison, and currently resides in the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, as he awaits a government appeal of the August appeals court ruling.

In that decision, federal Judge Douglas Ginsburg, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, held that the warrantless use of such surveillance technologies violates constitutional protections against warrantless searches. The heart of the ruling concerned a person's privacy expectation irrespective of the criminal nature involved.

Federal Appeal Court Judge Douglas Gingsburg voted to overturn Antoine Jones' conviction.
"It is one thing for a passerby to observe or even follow someone during a single journey as he goes to the market or returns home from work. It is another thing entirely for that stranger to pick up the scent again the next day and the day after, week in and week out, dogging his prey until he has identified all the people, amusements, and chores that make up that person's hitherto private routine," Ginsburg wrote.

Government prosecutors argued the extended surveillance -- 28 days worth of GPS tracking without a warrant -- did not violate Jones's right to a reasonable expectation of privacy because he had been traveling in full view on public roads. In so doing, they relied on the Supreme Court's decision in US v. Knotts, which held that police could legally track a suspect's car electronically without a warrant.

Other circuit courts have interpreted the Knotts decision to allow extended surveillance. But the DC panel held that relying on Knotts to approve extended warrantless surveillance was a misreading of the case because the Supreme Court had reserved its opinion on whether such tactics could be used in full-time, "dragnet-type" surveillance.

Although in the minority in the 9th Circuit case later that month, Judge Alex Kozinski strongly agreed with his brethren on the DC appeals court. "By holding that this kind of surveillance doesn't impair an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, the panel hands the government the power to track the movements of every one of us, every day of our lives," he wrote in a stinging dissent.

The DC appeals court ruling was welcomed by civil libertarians, defense attorneys, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which filed amicus briefs arguing that a warrant should be required for GPS tracking.

"Today's decision brings the Fourth Amendment in the 21st century," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU.

"This is the first decision on the federal appellate side that's really given momentum to the requirement for a warrant," said Washington, DC, attorney Daniel Prywes.

"The big picture is if the court allows warrantless GPS, it will take us one giant step closer to a surveillance society and that much further away from a free society," said ACLU attorney Bryan Caves. "Warrantless GPS would allow police anywhere to track a person's movement over an extended period of time without judicial supervision. And that's scary."

The lawyers weren't the only ones happy with the decision. "I was overwhelmed with happiness" when the verdict came in, said Antoine Jones. "But the first time in my life I got brain lock!  When I read my appeal attorney's email and it said, 'We won!' I had to call one of my homies and asked him to email my wife and my loved ones because I lost it. I had to go and pray, thanking God to get it back together."

But unless and until the US Supreme Court decides the GPS tracking issue in his favor, Antoine Jones remains inmate number 18600-016 at the Florence Supermax. Journalist Clarence Walker interviewed him over a matter of weeks via email and phone calls this fall. Jones continues to fight to see the light of day and decries what he called a rigged trial.

"The next step is to see if the government will appeal the decision," he said. "If the appeal is forwarded to an en-banc hearing, my attorney, Stephen Lecklar, said he doesn't think the government will get a favorable ruling because the three-panel judges has already ruled in my favor."

Jones said the government might bypass the en-banc hearing and appeal to the Supreme Court."So if the government doesn't appeal the reversed decision, I will be released immediately."  Jones added that if the Supreme Court affirms the reversal, "It will crush the government because all 50 states would require police to get a warrant before they can place an electronic device on vehicles."

Jones did not receive a fair trial, he said. "It would take days to explain all the misconduct by the government and how I was punished with prejudice in both trials. I have five civil complaints dealing with this case and I am going to win," he predicted. "Without the trial judge's prejudice against me the government wouldn't have had a chance and I would have walked free during the first trial -- or at least, the case would have been dismissed in pretrial."

Jones pointed to an admitted warrantless search of his apartment by federal agents. "Once the agent admitted this error, Judge Huvelle should have ruled in my favor, but she didn't rule to avoid a mistrial. That violation alone should have caused a mistrial or acquittal."

"To make matters worse the agents also entered my house illegally with a key and the judge wouldn't allow my wife or son to testify to the illegal search which allowed me to get convicted on this prejudiced evidence," Jones said.

Nor was Jones impressed by the quality of justice in the federal courts, and he aimed his broadside at the defense bar, as well as prosecutors and the judiciary. "These days the feds don't have to try to get you to roll over on your co-defendants," he said. "They get the high-paid shyster lawyers to do their dirty work. I explained to my attorney in the beginning of the case that I was going to war and I didn't want to hear what the government had to say or offer."

What the lawyers are doing in DC District Courts is coercing their clients to attend a "reverse debriefing" whereby the government will present evidence from a case, Jones explained. "And then the government and defense attorneys manipulate and encourage the defendant to work with the government or take a plea."

Lawyers for some of the co-defendants in the case decided to snitch for the feds. Jones recalled how the tactics backfired.  "Almost all of my co-defendants and their lawyers tried to get them to flip on me but those who declined and went to trial with me the first time, they were acquitted. But two of my co-defendants attended the debriefing and testified against me. They went to prison but the other three who declined to testify went home."

As he awaits his freedom, Jones said he relied on faith and family to see him through. "The only thing that keeps me going is the grace of God, his protection and my family support," he said. "I am at the US federal prison in Florence, Colorado, and this place is a living hell!"

Attorney  A. Eduardo Balarezo represented Jones during trial.
Jones' trial attorney, Washington-based Eduardo Balarezo, confirmed most of Jones' story. While he would not agree that some officers perjured themselves at trial, he added, "Although I think some of them massaged the truth a little bit."

Balarezo didn't think much of the government's stated reason for failing to obtain a warrant before GPSing Jones' vehicle. "The government basically said that getting a warrant would be onerous and not necessary, yet they were able to get one, but then let it expire and still placed it on my client's car," he noted.

Now, Jones may help make history as, one way or another, the warrantless GPS tracking issue makes its way to the Supreme Court. The former DC club owner is ready to start fresh once given the chance to walk out the prison doors.

"If the Lord blesses me to prevail and get my freedom, I will educate the youth and give back to the community," he said. "The real story is to put the past behind me and do the Lord's work to help others and save our youth."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


The Pledge of Allegiance:

~ Strike "GOD" and replace with "SURVEILLANCE"

~ Insert "SHARPLY CURTAILED" between "WITH" and "LIBERTY"



"God bless America?" Yeah, right! That is the most meaningless, hackneyed phrase I know of in the English lexicon.


The US of A has degenerated into a fully-militarized, quasi-totalitarian, oligarchic union of Police States where ancient concepts of "inalienable rights" to "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" and "government of the people, by the people, for the people" are but quaint and nostalgic slogans which have been relegated to the ash-dump of history but are occasionally pandered by blasphemous politicians who are photographed in front of the American Flag as if they were some champion of the Constitution.

Because of the countless atrocities against human rights and TOTAL DISREGARD for The Constitution in the name of a War on Drugs, I consider the American Flag barely worthy of use as a floor-mat upon which to wipe the dirt from the soles of my shoes. DOWN WITH THE US GOV'T AND ALL NATIONS THAT SUCK UP AND BOW DOWN TO IT

Thu, 12/16/2010 - 5:45pm Permalink
Edna V. (not verified)


I think many Americans, on the road to "enlightenment" inevitably go through a period of disillusionment that feels like hell. We are collectively programmed to believe that America is No. 1--  no other culture shouts "USA, USA," and confidently asserts the superiority of its culture. But when you read history --- real history, you start to wake up. You learn Thanksgiving was falsely promoted as a  time when the Native Americans helped settlers survive and the red man and the white man got along, but hardly any schools teach about the genocide of an entire culture. As Chris Rock put it, "When was the last time you saw an Indian family at a Red Lobster?" We are taught that slavery was a long, long time ago, and then "fixed" by Abraham Lincoln and left over problems were "fixed" by MLK Jr. Yeah, both were assassinated, but one is on the five dollar bill, and the other has his own day.

And then you realize that History is really Now, and that we torture people in foreign CIA bases, and put a guy in jail for ten years for having a sheet of acid, while a rapist is out in five years.

That said, after the Whiskey Rebellion, Jefferson said the tree of liberty must be refreshed regularly with the blood of patriots and tyrants. This IS a country where change happens, it can just be glacial. Corporatism, environmental devastation, poverty, the military-police prison complex -- all that can really get you down. But it is not too healthy to focus on such things. We know evil exists. My parents were alive when mechanized systematic genocide occurred all over Europe. We know conspiracies exist-- Nixon was gracious enough not to burn his tapes. But choose the powers of freedom and love that STILL remain in this country. The American flag should not be co-opted by fascists. Make it be your own flag. You have a right to burn it, but I think it's better to be grateful for all this country makes available-- including the right to express ourselves here. Jones has faith, and he is in prison. No matter how many times you have seen Shawshank Redemption, it's impossible to understand the dehumanization that occurs. You become chattel. Yet he has faith. We should honor that.

Fri, 12/17/2010 - 7:24pm Permalink
Nedmorlef (not verified)

Violations have become more prevalent because, no cop is held liable unless he gets caught, turns out to be wrong and then the defendant has the funds to see him held accountable. What are the chances when, he can see through your walls, steal your dna , freeze your bank accounts,confiscate your camera and arrest or intimidate your witnesses?

Unfortunately unless you have the money to buy protection the cops can & will violate you all day long. They can use all their toys & tricks to gain information to obtain warrants whether you are guilty or not.

 As long as you can't prove they're doing it then, the constitution is about worthless.

Neither expect the system to help you keep it's tentacles in line. Don't believe for one moment that any part of the system cares about justice. They care about winning and bringing money in to justify their jobs.

Just hope that, you have nothing they want. like land. With the freedom to prosecute that, they possess there is no freedom for you & me.

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 7:44am Permalink
Joe44 (not verified)

If a private citizen found a GPS on their car and placed it on a law enforcement vehicle, it would be considered tampering with government property.

If a private citizen found a GPS on their car and placed it on a semi truck to fool LE officials, it would be considered tampering with evidence.

If a private citizen found a GPS on their car and ran it over, it would be considered destruction of government property.

If a private citizen found a GPS on their car and attempted to sell it on Ebay, it would be considered theft of government property and selling stolen goods across state lines.


If a law enforcement agency places a GPS unit on a car without a warrant, it would be considered  an integral part of an ongoing investigation on possible illegal or terrorist activity.

Thu, 01/20/2011 - 12:34pm Permalink

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