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Eighth Circuit Rules Search Warrant Based on Affidavit That Failed to Link Target to Criminal Activity Lacked Probable Cause, Not Saved by Good-Faith Exception

by David Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that two state court warrants to place a GPS tracker on the vehicle of Juan Lopez-Zuniga lacked sufficient indicia of probable cause and could not be saved by the good-faith exception. The Court, however, found two other warrants were supported by sufficient information.

Before the Court was the interlocutory appeal of the United States. That appeal ensued after a U.S. district court in Iowa suppressed evidence obtained via the four warrants. The district court ruling adopted the magistrate’s recommendation.
An agent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension sought the first warrant in December 2015, which sought permission to place a GPS tracking device on Lopez-Zuniga’s vehicle for 60 days. The supporting affidavit detailed a drug investigation into Rogelio Magana Garcia-Jimenez that involved several controlled drug transactions involving him. Toward the end of the affidavit, it stated that Lopez-Zuniga dropped off someone believed to be Garcia-Jimenez at the apartment complex investigators believe Garcia-Jimenez lived. Additionally, the pair were allegedly observed driving to a restaurant and nearby mall together. The agent stated he believed the two men were conspiring to sell illegal drugs. The state court granted the warrant to place a GPS tracker on Lopez-Zuniga’s car.

Placement of a GPS tracking device on a vehicle is a search under the Fourth Amendment that requires probable cause. United States v. Faulkner, 826 F.3d 1139 (8th Cir. 2016). Probable cause determination takes into account all the facts and circumstances and whether “there is a fair probability that evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.” Id. Even if probable cause does not exist, evidence will not be suppressed “if it was objectively reasonable for the officer executing the warrant to have relied in good faith on the issuing judge’s determination that probable cause existed,” the Eighth Circuit wrote. This “good-faith exception” does not apply when the warrant application is “so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable.” United States v. Jackson, 784 F.3d 1227 (8th Cir. 2015).

The Court found the first affidavit did not connect Lopez-Zuniga to any of Garcia-Jimenez’s suspected illegal activities. If his traveling with a suspected drug dealer amounted to probable cause “then anyone who drops a drug trafficker off at the trafficker’s residence and travels with the trafficker for innocent activity, such as the trafficker’s grandmother or mere acquaintance, would be subject to search,” the Court approvingly quoted the magistrate judge in the case. Thus, the Court ruled that there wasn’t probable cause to support the warrant, and the good-faith exception didn’t apply because no reasonable law enforcement officer could believe probable cause existed.

Likewise, the second search was based on the same information as the first, but it added some additional information obtained as a result of the first warrant. As that evidence had to be suppressed, it was not considered by the Court in analyzing the second warrant. That left a pen register that showed the two men had 154 “contacts” between December 21 and February 11. The Court found that evidence showed nothing more than that Lopez-Zuniga was an acquaintance of Garcia-Jimenez. The two warrants issued by the Minneapolis court were properly suppressed, the Court ruled.
That, however, was not the finding as to two warrants issued by an Iowa state court to place a GPS tracker on Lopez-Zuniga’s car for 60 days each. The supporting affidavits for those warrants included information contained in Minneapolis, but they went further by stating that Lopez-Zuniga met a confidential informant to hand over methamphetamine at a location arranged by Garcia-Jimenez. This, in addition to another 245 pen register contacts over a four-month period, supported a probable cause finding “because it connects Lopez-Zuniga to illegal activity,” the Court concluded. 

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s suppression of evidence resulting from the first and second warrants but reversed the suppression of evidence resulting from the third and fourth warrants and remanded. See: United States v. Lopez-Zuniga, 909 F.3d 906 (8th Cir. 2018). 

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