Ruling that federal agents erred in attaching a satellite tracking device to a vehicle without a search warrant, a federal appeals court has reversed the life sentence of man accused of running a major Washington drug ring.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Friday found that the government's use of GPS technology to track defendant Antoine Jones' Jeep violated the Fourth Amendment.
Civil liberties groups that aided in the appeal of Mr. Jones, whose case involved the largest cocaine seizure in city history, called the ruling an important legal victory for privacy rights.
The three-judge ruling called the GPS information key to the federal prosecution of Mr. Jones, who owned Club Levels in Northeast Washington across the street from the Metropolitan Police Department's Fifth District headquarters.
"The GPS data were essential to the government's case," the court ruled. "By combining them with Mr. Jones's cell-phone records, the government was able to paint a picture of Mr. Jones's movements that made credible the allegation that he was involved in drug trafficking."
Stephen Leckar, one of the lawyers on the Jones appeal, said the ruling "recognizes the Fourth Amendment's continued significance in promoting privacy in a high-tech age."
"The decision simply tells law enforcement agents that they need a judge's decision before trespassing on a person's car and attaching a device that tracks and records him or her relentlessly over time and space."
The decision was also hailed by outside groups that aided in the appeal.
"Today's decision brings the Fourth Amendment into the 21st century," Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, said in a statement announcing the decision.
Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which also worked on the case, said she hoped other courts grappling with the same issue would follow the decision.
"The court correctly recognized the important differences between limited surveillance of public activities possible through visual surveillance … and the sort of extended, invasive, pervasive, always-on tracking that GPS devices allow," she said.
Government lawyers had argued Mr. Jones' movements were public anyway, because police could have followed him everywhere he went on public roads, but the court rejected that argument.
Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, said prosecutors were "studying the ruling" Friday. He declined to comment further on whether they would appeal the decision.
The case was investigated by the Metropolitan Police Department and FBI joint Safe Streets Task Force.
Prosecutors said Mr. Jones ran a drug ring that involved at least nine other defendants that spanned from 2003 to 2005 involving hundreds of kilograms of cocaine shipped from Mexico. Executing search warrants in 2005, authorities said they seized 97 kilograms of cocaine from various locations in the District and Maryland — the largest cocaine seizure in area history, officials said. A kilogram is 2.2 pounds.
But Mr. Jones' attorney at trial argued that the case was based on the government's interpretations of what it called coded telephone calls and the use of informants with motives to testify for the government and against Mr. Jones.
"I am very happy for Mr. Jones and his family," the trial attorney, A. Eduardo Balarezo, said Friday in reaction to the appeals court decision. "We always felt that this issue was very important, but that it was not fully considered at trial."
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