DEA Can Track Pot Growers With Mobile Devices

CANNABIS CULTURE – A US Federal court says the Drug Enforcement Administration has the right to attach mobile tracking devices to the vehicles of suspected marijuana growers.

A 9th Circuit appeals court in Portland Oregon upheld a guilty verdict of marijuana manufacturing and conspiracy to manufacture against Juan Pineda-Moreno, who had appealed on grounds his constitutional rights were violated by DEA agents who attached small electronic transmitters to his SUV on multiple occasions to track his movements.

According to court documents, a DEA special agent “noticed a group of men purchasing a large quantity of fertilizer from a Home Depot” on May 28, 2007 and, “recognizing the fertilizer as a type frequently used to grow marijuana”, followed Pineda-Moreno’s 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee as it left the store.

In June, agents learned the men had “purchased large quantities of groceries, irrigation equipment, and deer repellant at several stores” and had traveled in Pineda-Moreno’s Jeep. After learning Pineda-Moreno’s address, the DEA intensified their investigation.

“Over a four-month period, agents repeatedly monitored Pineda-Moreno’s Jeep using various types of mobile tracking devices,” the court’s opinion papers say. “Each device was about the size of a bar of soap and had a magnet affixed to its side, allowing it to be attached to the underside of a car.”

“Agents installed these devices on the underside of Pineda-Moreno’s Jeep on seven different occasions. On four of these occasions, the vehicle was parked on a public street in front of Pineda-Moreno’s home. On one occasion, it was located in a public parking lot. On the other two occasions, the Jeep was parked in Pineda-Moreno’s driveway, a few feet from the side of his trailer. The driveway leading up to the trailer was open; agents did not observe any fence, gate, or ‘No Trespassing’ signs indicating that they were not to enter the property. […] Once in place, the tracking devices recorded and logged the precise movements of the vehicle. Some of these devices permitted agents to access the information remotely, while others required them to remove the device from the vehicle and download the information directly.”

On September 12, 2007, DEA agents pulled Pineda-Moreno’s vehicle over after received information from one of the devices indicating he was leaving a suspected grow show. Agents said they smelled marijuana, though none was found in the vehicle or on Pineda-Moreno or his three passengers. After contacting immigration authorities, who arrested the three other men, DEA agents searched Pineda-Moreno’s home and found two garbage bags full of pot.

The court ruled that Pineda-Moreno’ could not show “that the agents invaded an area in which he possessed a reasonable expectation of privacy when they walked up his driveway and attached the tracking device to his vehicle. Because the agents did not invade such an area, they conducted no search, and Pineda-Moreno can assert no Fourth Amendment violation.”

“Pineda-Moreno makes no claim that the agents used the tracking devices to intrude into a constitutionally protected area,” Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain said in the court decision. “The only information the agents obtained from the tracking devices was a log of the locations where Pineda-Moreno’s car traveled, information the agents could have obtained by following the car. Insofar as [Pineda-Moreno’s] complaint appears to be simply that scientific devices such as the [tracking devices]enabled the police to be more effective in detecting crime, it simply has no constitutional foundation. We have never equated police efficiency with unconstitutionality and decline to do so now.” […] We conclude that the police did not conduct an impermissible search of Pineda-Moreno’s car by monitoring its location with mobile tracking devices.”