A new GPS privacy issue, and Google Earth used to find marijuana patches

by Last Night in Little Rock

A new issue: How far may a police officer go in searching an arrestee's personal GPS device for where he has been?  The first apparent first case is now working its way through the courts.

From the Journal Times of Racine, WI, by Janine Anderson: Sheriff's department uses Google Earth to pinpoint marijuana fields.

The Racine County Sheriff's Department used Google Earth -- an online mapping program -- last week to pinpoint marijuana fields in Mount Pleasant and bust a Racine man for harvesting pot.

The investigation began Friday after Racine County Sheriff's deputies pulled over Dean Brown, 37, of Racine, near highways 75 and 20, according to a criminal complaint. A deputy smelled marijuana as he approached the car, and discovered 18 pounds of freshly harvested marijuana in the car's cargo area. The marijuana, stuffed in two large garbage bags with heavy stems poking through the plastic, was worth between $63,000 and $140,000.

Brown was arrested for felony drug possession, but that was just the beginning of the investigation. Deputies found a GPS unit around Brown's neck with coordinates to areas throughout Racine County, the complaint said.

On Saturday, Metro Drug agents plugged coordinates saved in Brown's GPS unit into Google Earth, a searchable compilation of satellite images available through the Internet. By entering the coordinates, agents were able to find the locations in Racine County programmed into the GPS unit.

Then, the Sheriff's deputies used Google Earth to locate other marijuana patches. Try it. Enter in your home or work address and zoom in and see the quality of the resolution.  It is remarkable. The images are better now than they were just a year ago.

There is, of course, no reasonable expectation of privacy after a flyover; that was settled a long time ago. One might be scared by a helicopter overheard, but what about a satellite constantly taking pictures? You never know it is there.  

A decade ago, long before this service, which is general, the North Little Rock Police used private satellite imaging to attempt to locate a car at a house at the time of a murder, and they were able to actually acquire a photograph during a satellite pass for the approximate time of the crime. They did not find anything, but one has to applaud their ingenuity.

[crosslinked to www.FourthAmendment.com]

< Last Call for Site Bugs | DWI death successfully prosecuted as murder in NY >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    GPS search (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by Deconstructionist on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 08:37:35 AM EST
      I'm not sure I follow this. What is the supposed issue as to "how far" a GPS unit's memory may be searched? Assuming, that the GPS unit was lawfully seized (a distinct issue) what conceivable argument is there that the police may not search the unit for evidence of the location of contraband or the fruits of a crime?

      The police might then need to get a specific search warrant based upon an affidavit establishing probable cause the GPS contains evidence, but again that is a different isssue than "how far" they may go in searching the unit.

      How would this be any different than if the police lawfully seized a day-planner in which a defendant wrote down his itinerary?

      Even if we go the next step to forensic recreation of deleted data from the GPS, would that be any different than the police taking steps to read writings that had been erased or blacked-out and were not readable with the naked eye,  but were capable of being read with chemical or physical manipulations.

       Certainly, you are not suggesting that because the GPS unit might also contain private information not related to criminal conduct it may not be thoroughly searched?

    Re: (none / 0) (#3)
    by Patrick on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 11:20:02 AM EST
    Are you suggesting that the imaging from Google earth is clear enough and recent/updated enough to find marijuana gardens?  If you are, you're fooling yourself.  There is no possible way!  And I've tried.  

    I do however, like the GPS idea and after reading this post thought of few people who are currently on probation who's GPS I'd like to look at.  Thanks for the tip!

    Google Earth is for pr0n. (none / 0) (#4)
    by jerry on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 12:09:48 PM EST

    See a small bucket of plants?  Probably not.

    See an organized crop where it's not supposed to be?  Almost certainly.

    The link above shows that you can find nude sunbathers with Google Earth.  If you scroll around that image you can see that the resolution of some areas in google earth really is almost of the "read the license plate" sharp.  You can make out individual people very easily.

    Is it legal?  How legal is it for a cop to go through your wallet or address book without a warrant?


    Re: Google Earth (none / 0) (#7)
    by Patrick on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 12:29:53 PM EST

      I've never seen a photo on Google Earth sharp enough to read a license plate, and even in the photo on the link, you can barely tell it's a human.  Even if there was an organized crop, you'd be hard pressed to identify the type of plants.  Where I work, the crooks are hiding from helicopter overflight, I'm pretty sure that's sufficient to hide it from google earth quality photos.  

      Out of curiosity, I checked my house.  Which I can see, but can't tell which of my cars is parked in the driveway.  Anyway, There are several new houses in my neighborhood which have completed construction and don't even show up as being started on G.E.  So without the benefit of real time, or at least weekly or monthly updates, there's really no use for it.  


    Re: Google Earth (none / 0) (#12)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 01:19:59 PM EST
    Anyway, There are several new houses in my neighborhood which have completed construction and don't even show up as being started on G.E.

    Patrick, I just wrote that same exact thing, you're kind of freaking me out!

    Actually, I think I'm viewing "nested" which doesn't post comments chronologically, so I think I need to change back to "flat" or something.


    Re: Google Earth (none / 0) (#13)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 01:23:18 PM EST
    Flat unthreaded seems to be chronological.

    Re: Google Earth (none / 0) (#14)
    by Patrick on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 01:29:29 PM EST
    I know...We did the same thing in the "last call for Bugs" thread....Freaky is right.  

    Google Earth used to find marijuana patches (none / 0) (#5)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 12:22:53 PM EST
    Then, the Sheriff's deputies used Google Earth to locate other marijuana patches.

    Actually, if you read the article, I don't think they used Google Earth to search for and find "other" (random) marijuana patches but, rather, they entered into Google Earth the coordinates the perp had programmed into his GPS so as to assist the LE in locating other (more) of his pot farms.

    Biiig difference.

    No, while the resolution of Google Earth is remarkable, it's not good enough to show even the vineyard (and other big stuff) in my own backyard - that I know is there and am looking specifically for - so I seriously doubt, at this point anyway, it would help with finding random pot gardens spread across an entire county or state...

    Re: Google Earth used to find marijuana patches (none / 0) (#9)
    by Patrick on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 12:34:18 PM EST
    I swear sometimes I think we're the same person.  

    Patrick, logical minds think alike.

    Lastly, as Patrick mentioned above, how often are the Google Earth images updated?

    Well, judging by a newly constructed home near mine that was completed and fully landscaped at least 6 months ago and that appears on Google Earth as a big brown dirt patch with a house in the middle of it, it doesn't seem that they're updated all that often...


    Re (none / 0) (#6)
    by Deconstructionist on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 12:29:45 PM EST
      As the orginal post notes there is no question it is legal for the police to use aerial surveillance  -- and for the prosecution  have admitted as evidence photographs from that surveillance. The bottom line is if it can be seen without physical trespass, with or without technological assistance, it is lawfully gathered evidence. From a legal standpoint it's no different from the cops  sitting on the road and seeing it in your window through binoculars.

      The somewhat absurd argument that satellite reconnaissance should be distinguished fails on two grounds. First, who is not aware that satellites exist (the Flat Earth society)? Second it's not necessary to prove that the  specific technology used was known to a defendant to make his expectation of privacy unreasonable. The fact that in a particular case it was a satellite rather than an aircraft which spotted the contraband is irrelevant to the inquiry.

       The police in some jurisdictions even use thermal imaging that can detect indoor growing operations. The cops don't have to show the defendant knew that heat escaping the building was subject to detection to use the thermal imaging as part of the evidence in support of probablle cause for a search warrant.

    Re: Re (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by Patrick on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 12:32:58 PM EST

       Can't thermal image a residence w/o a search warrant anymore, or if you do, you can't use that are part of the probable cause since you're violating their right to privacy on the thermal waves leaving their residence.  


    Re: (none / 0) (#10)
    by Deconstructionist on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 12:45:36 PM EST
      That's true; I wrote that backward. Kyllo did categorize thermal imaging as  a "search" under the 4th. You now need independent probable cause sufficient to obtain a warrant for it before it is admissible as evidence. But, with a warrant it is admissible in court regardless of whether the defendant had any idea such technology existed.

    to find marijuana patches (none / 0) (#15)
    by Deconstructionist on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 01:53:27 PM EST
      The free version of google earth is not frequently updated-- not sure about the subscription version. There are also other more advanced subscription services out there.

      As for "locating" the weed, if all the cops did was use GE to put the latitude and  longitude coordinates they  obtained from the GPS on something graphical so they could find the coordinates on the ground more easily, they could have just used the GPS which would lead them directly to the waypoints.

      I assume they were hoping to get lucky and get a picture of the weed growing but I agree there is almost no chance of that. Even if by pure chance the available image was from the period just before harvest when the plants were large and they  zoomed in as close as you can get, they couldn't get a picture clear enough to say "that's a picture of marijuana" in court.


    Re: to find marijuana patches (none / 0) (#16)
    by Patrick on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 02:52:53 PM EST

        We use GPS from overflights and download them to a terrain navigator program which shows, elevations and terrain features.  I have to imagine that's far more efficient that using G.E.  Even then I can assure you that in person, the terrain is usually much more difficult than first anticipated.  


    Re: to find marijuana patches (none / 0) (#17)
    by Deconstructionist on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 03:13:59 PM EST
      I use my GE sometimes together with terraserver and topo maps to locate potential native trout streams. I know that the terrain features are hard to distinguish because of the lack of relief in the pictures. The pics are mostly good for spotting places via natural or artificial landmarks. I can enter the latitude and longitude for the landmarks along with my intended destination and it helps get oriented. they are also useful for figuring out good places to park.

      The topo maps are essential for having an idea what kind of hike it might because the pics always flatten everything out and can also deceive you depending on the season and time of day they were taken because of the shadows.

      It is cool though to sit at your computer and download waypoint coordinates to a spot on a satellite image and then follow the GPS right to them. It's geeky, I suppose,  but ....