Earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court said federal prosecutors in Washington will not be able to use global positioning system information in an upcoming drug conspiracy trial here.
The landmark ruling in U.S. v. Jones said the authorities violated privacy rights by sticking a GPS device, without a warrant, on the vehicle of a main target in the investigation.
The government used the data to link Antoine Jones to a stash house in Maryland in which the authorities said they found hundreds of thousands of dollars and nearly 100 kilograms of cocaine.
The Jones case is back in Washington federal district court, and it now turns out that the authorities may not need the GPS data to try to link Jones to the drug house.
Prosecutors said they intend to use cell tower data in place of the GPS information, court records show. Cell tower data was not used in either of the first two trials involving Jones.
Jones’ attorney, A. Eduardo Balarezo, late Thursday filed court papers (PDF) in the case challenging the prosecution’s planned use of tower data to show Jones’ movement in the Washington metropolitan area.
“In this case, the government seeks to do with cell site data what it cannot do with the suppressed GPS data,” Balarezo, a Washington solo practitioner, said in the papers.
Balarezo said that investigators, in seeking a court order to obtain the cell tower data, “utterly failed” to articulate specific facts to justify obtaining the information from a cellular service provider.
The government, Balarezo said, doesn’t “state any facts pertaining to the investigation of Mr. Jones and never even mentions him.”
Balarezo is also challenging the ability of prosecutors to use the cash and drugs found in the house in Maryland.
The trial judge, Ellen Segal Huvelle, must determine whether investigators found the house through any other means than the GPS data that is now suppressed.
Balarezo said in court papers that because the use of the GPS device was unlawful, “any evidence directly or indirectly derived from that illegal seizure must be suppressed as the fruit of the poisonous tree.”
Jones has remained jailed since his arrest in 2005. His trial in October 2006 produced a hung jury. He was convicted at a second trial, the following year, on one count of conspiracy. Jones was sentenced to life in prison.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2010 voided Jones’ conviction and life sentence, saying that the warrantless use of GPS was unlawful.
Federal prosecutors have until April 6 to respond to Balarezo’s legal challenges. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia was not immediately reached for comment this morning.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has dedicated three prosecutors—Arvind Lal, Darlene Soltys and Courtney Spivey—to the Jones case.
Prosecutors announced in court papers earlier this month that the government was “exploring whether cell-site and/or geolocation data was obtained for various phones during the investigation, and, if so, whether it still exists.”
Jones’ trial is scheduled for May.