How a drug mule named "Big Foot" helped create terrible GPS search law
In the summer of 2006, agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency used GPS tracking technology to locate drug courier Melvin Skinner’s prepaid phone, ultimately seizing more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana from Skinner’s mobile home. The judges on the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit then apparently smoked all of it before issuing their ruling in United States v. Skinner this week, because the opinion approving DEA’s use of GPS technology in this case is easily one of the most muddled examples of legal reasoning I’ve ever encountered—a surreal potpourri of factual misunderstandings, inapt analogies, sloppy and selective appeals to precedent, and logical leaps worthy of Nijinsky.
A very brief summary of the case: DEA was already investigating a drug trafficking organization, and through the use of lawful wiretaps learned that a courier code-named “Big Foot” would be driving a large shipment of marijuana from Tucson, Arizona to Mooresburg, Tennessee in his mobile home. “Big Foot” was using a prepaid (or “burner”) mobile phone purchased for him by his co-conspirators, which meant one thing the DEA didn’t know was Big Foot’s identity, because the prepaid phone wasn’t registered in his name. (While this makes them appealing to drug dealers, they’re also very popular with ordinary, law-abiding citizens: prepaid phones now account for 25 percent of mobile phone subscriptions.) Agents then obtained a court order—but not a search warrant based on probable cause—to “ping” the phone’s GPS chip and precisely track its location in realtime. Tracing it to a truck stop near Abilene, Texas, authorities brought drug dogs to sniff the perimeter of the mobile home, and when the dogs alerted the agents to the presence of drugs, they performed a search—finding the drugs and arresting Skinner, now revealed as “Big Foot.”