A GPS was the smoking gun in a Wednesday decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
In a per curiam decision, a panel of three judges denied an appeal based on the contention that pulling information from a global positioning system device violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.
Judges Gerald Tjoflat, William Pryor and R. Lanier Anderson affirmed the conviction and four year, three month prison sentence of Maikel Suarez Plasencia (Suarez) for “encouraging and inducing aliens to enter the United States.”
“On the morning of September 6, 2015, twenty-eight Cuban migrants were found on Loggerhead Key, Florida,” the judges wrote. “Later that day, Suarez’s boat broke down on Garden Key, an island three miles east of Loggerhead Key and seventy miles west of Key West. A park ranger, David Fuellner, responded to a report of Suarez’s beached boat and located Suarez and the boat.”
Prosecutors said the report relayed that “a Spanish-speaking man had told a park supervisor that he had been camping and fishing for the previous two days, that he needed fuel for his boat and that he needed to get … to Key West to get somebody to come back and bring him fuel.”
The park ranger asked for permission to search the boat, and Suarez consented orally and in writing, the judges said.
The signed form authorized Fuellner to perform a “complete” search of the vessel and to seize its contents for any “legitimate law enforcement purpose,” the judges said. Suarez then took a ferry to Key West to summon help with fixing his boat.
Fuellner conducted the search the next day and found a GPS which, once plugged into the boat’s power source and turned on, showed a waypoint indicating that the boat had been just off of Cuba’s shore on Sept. 5, 2015.
Fuellner then powered off the GPS, seized it and entered it into evidence. Later, the U.S. Coast Guard analyzed the GPS and found that Suarez left Key West around 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 5, arrived off the coast of Cuba at about 4:30 p.m. that day and then reached the vicinity of Loggerhead and Garden Keys in the early morning of Sept. 6.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents interviewed Suarez on Sept. 8 and said that “Suarez claimed that he had taken his boat on a spear-fishing trip from Key West to the Dry Tortugas and that he spent a night on the vessel. He denied knowledge of a migrant landing in the area,” he said. But the boat had no fishing gear or bait.
When confronted with the GPS evidence, Suarez said the agents must have mixed up his device with someone else’s.
“However, Suarez admitted that his wife and two of his children were among the migrants who landed on September 6, 2015,” the judges said.
A federal grand jury in the Southern District of Florida charged him with alien smuggling. Suarez filed a motion to suppress the GPS evidence, which the judge denied. The judge said he consented to the search and that he had abandoned his boat.
A jury convicted him.
The Eleventh Circuit judges affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress the GPS evidence.
Suarez was represented by Federal Public Defender for the Southern District of Florida Michael Caruso.
The prosecutor was Assistant U.S. Attorney John C. Shipley.
The lawyers could not be reached immediately for comment.
The case is U.S.A. v. Maikel Suarez Plasencia, No. 16-16946.