The lawyer for an accused west-central Minnesota deer poacher says evidence against his client should be tossed out because Department of Natural Resources conservation officers violated his constitutional rights.
In papers filed Friday in Lac qui Parle district court, attorney Bill Peterson of Bloomington said the DNR didn’t properly seek a search warrant before attaching a GPS tracking device to Joshua Dwight Liebl’s pickup on Oct. 8, 2014.
As a result, Liebl’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches were violated, Peterson said.
“The way they got the tracking order was not according to Minnesota law,” Peterson said Friday. “I don’t know what was crossing their [members of the DNR] minds. I think they were just fishing.”
Tracking devices are only used, the DNR says, when resources are imminently endangered or when other enforcement tools and methods prove ineffective.
Less than two weeks after attaching the GPS gadget to Liebl’s pickup, DNR officers executed a search warrant and confiscated the racks and mounts of 37 dead deer from Liebl’s home, along with a similar number of guns.
Liebl, 38, of Dawson, Minn., hasn’t entered a plea in the often-delayed case and has not spoken publicly about it. Relatives of his say he is innocent.
The case has garnered widespread attention and has been cited by Gov. Mark Dayton in his renewed attempt to charge serious poaching allegations as felonies, not gross misdemeanors, as is currently the case in Minnesota. Dayton also is seeking 10-year hunting and fishing license revocations in these instances, up from five years.
Using information gained from the tracking device, DNR officers and Lac qui Parle County deputies stopped Liebl and a friend in Liebl’s pickup about 8 p.m. on Oct. 21, 2014.
An eight-point whitetail buck was in the back of the truck, killed by a rifle bullet. DNR officers confiscated the animal, along with a .243 rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and ammunition that were also in the vehicle.
Only archery hunting for deer was allowed at the time. And while Liebl possessed an archery license, the DNR said he purchased it illegally because he had been cited for shining in South Dakota on Nov. 10, 2013 (relatives have said Liebl was shining skunks).
The South Dakota conviction precluded Liebl from purchasing hunting licenses in Minnesota and many other states until December 2014, according to the DNR.
While Liebl was stopped, another team of officers arrived at his home with a search warrant. According to the DNR, a woman was at the residence and told the officers she occasionally had “driven around” with Liebl at night shooting skunks. But she didn’t know much about his hunting, she said, saying Liebl had mounted only one trophy deer since 2011.
Officers found multiple buck head-and-shoulder mounts and many free-standing whitetail racks in the house, representing 37 dead deer.
Liebl, the DNR said, had registered only four deer between 2004 and 2013, all adult males.
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The DNR also says that between 2000 and 2014, Liebl and/or his former wife (the couple divorced in 2012; she has not been charged) had together purchased 33 deer licenses and five duplicate deer licenses.
A trout, a turkey, a goose, a raccoon, multiple ducks, two sage grouse and an intact piebald white-tailed fawn also were found in a freezer at Liebl’s home. No venison was found.
Officers believe the fawn had been killed that fall by a rifle bullet.
Among charges filed against Liebl were gross misdemeanor use of an artificial light to take deer, hunting during prohibited time, gross misdemeanor trespassing and two counts of failure to register deer.
Liebl’s pickup, along with the mounts and racks, the trout and other animals, including the fawn, were seized by conservation officers. Thirty-seven guns also were confiscated.
Depending on the case’s outcome, the mounts, guns and equipment could be kept and auctioned by the state, with proceeds going to the DNR’s Game and Fish Fund. Or a judge could order the DNR to return some or all of the gear.
Liebl’s arrest, along with related citations issued against others in the case, each of which has been paid, ended a five-year DNR investigation, during which officers at least once had surveyed Liebl’s rural Dawson home, about 20 miles from the South Dakota border, by airplane.
But the DNR didn’t have enough evidence to arrest Liebl until District Judge Dwayne Knutsen granted the agency’s tracking device application.
Requesting the GPS gadget, DNR conservation officer Ed Picht cited complaints the DNR had received over the years about Liebl’s suspected poaching. Also cited was Liebl’s alleged license-purchase violation.
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In Minnesota, a search warrant generally is required before law enforcement officers can place a tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle.
If the DNR had applied for a search warrant, instead of a tracking order, officers likely would have been rejected, Peterson said.
“The information they had didn’t reach the level of probable cause,” he said.
A DNR officer snapped the tracking device onto Liebl’s white 2005 Chevrolet Silverado at 3 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2014, while the vehicle was parked in Liebl’s driveway. Another officer stood watch nearby.
Officers didn’t wait long to electronically track Liebl’s truck into the countryside. That night, and also on Oct. 15, conservation officers “followed” Liebl’s pickup remotely to locations where they believed he shined his truck headlights into fields.
At each location, tire tracks on gravel roads were found that indicated a vehicle had stopped, backed up and turned as if to point its headlights into a “combined field, wetland or alfalfa field,” Picht wrote in a report.
Picht subsequently visited three more locations where the tracking device showed Liebl’s truck had stopped on Oct. 20 between 12:45 a.m. and 2:45 a.m.
Picht said he followed what appeared to be drag marks leading into an alfalfa field at one of the suspected stops. About 100 yards from the road, he found three deer beds, he said, one with a pool of blood in it.
Based on what he found, Picht later that day applied to a judge for a warrant to search Liebl’s home.
The warrant was granted.
Peterson says all evidence against Liebl gathered after the tracking device order was approved should be thrown out.
Included would be evidence taken from Liebl’s and his parents’ homes.
Lac qui Parle County Attorney Rick Stulz said Friday he believed use of the tracking device will hold up and that Liebl’s rights were not violated.
Stulz has until mid-February to respond to Peterson’s filing. A ruling on the validity of evidence gained from the tracking device is expected from District Judge Thomas Van Hon in the spring.