NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal appeals court has upheld a conviction of a multistate drug runner based on information on his interstate travel that authorities tracked from his non-contract, pay-as-you-go cell phone.
A three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit issued a ruling Tuesday that upheld the conviction of Melvin Skinner, who had argued that the district court should have suppressed GPS information from his cell phone that federal drug enforcement agents used to track his travels between Arizona and Tennessee.
Skinner was convicted of drug trafficking and money laundering for his role as a courier moving drugs for a large-scale drug trafficking operation led by James Michael West, brother of Knoxville real estate developer Scott West. Both brothers pleaded guilty and were sent to prison for their roles in the drug trafficking conspiracy.
The opinion said that while the drug runners in this case presumed the pay-as-you-go phones were more difficult to trace, they didn't realize the phones had GPS capabilities.
Authorities used the data emanating from Skinner's phone to determine his real-time location, which resulted in his arrest at a rest stop near Abilene, Texas, with over 1,100 pounds of marijuana in a recreational vehicle.
William C. Killian, the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Tennessee where the case was prosecuted, called the appeal court's decision "a sound and thorough analysis of the issue." He said he believes that the ruling will assist police officers who want to use GPS technology in criminal investigations.
"As the court noted, the police officers are availing themselves of recent technology to detect criminal behavior," just as criminals use the same technology to avoid detection, Killian said.
The 6th Circuit noted that the case was different than a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on police use of GPS to track a defendant. The high court unanimously ruled in January that police could not install GPS technology to track suspects without first getting a judge's approval.
In Skinner's case, the Drug Enforcement Agency learned about a drug trafficking conspiracy in which shipments of marijuana was being sent via couriers to Tennessee from Arizona. The couriers used pay-as-you-go phones that were registered under fake names to communicate. The phones would be discarded after a while and new ones purchased to avoid wire taps.
After agents determined the phone number for one of the pre-paid phones being used by Skinner, they obtained a federal magistrate judge's order in 2006 authorizing the phone company to release GPS real-time location in order to determine his location when he was delivering drugs.
"There is no Fourth Amendment violation because Skinner did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data given off by his voluntarily procured pay-as-you-go cell phone," wrote Judge John M. Rogers in the opinion.
An attorney for Skinner did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment on Tuesday.