Back in 2012, the US Supreme Court declared it was illegal for law enforcement to attach a GPS tracker to a suspect’s car without first getting a warrant. But in 2018, cops in Indiana charged a suspected drug dealer with theft after he removed such a tracking device from his SUV, triggering a legal debate over whether you can legally remove such devices.
As it turns out, you most assuredly can.
A new unanimous ruling from the Indiana Supreme Court has declared that the suspect in question did not “steal” the government-owned device, and that law enforcement should have known better before bringing the charges.
The case started back in July of 2018, when the Warrick County, Indiana Sheriff's Office obtained a warrant to attach a GPS tracking device to an SUV belonging to Derek Heuring, after receiving a tip from a confidential information who claimed he used the vehicle to sell meth.
While the attached device delivered Heuring’s location data to police for around a week, it stopped transmitting shortly thereafter—leading police to suspect it had been removed. Police waited another 10 days to see if the device would start transmitting again, then applied for a new search warrant to search both Heuring and his parents’ homes.
Under US law, law enforcement has to show probable cause that a crime has been committed before performing a property search. In Heuring’s case, police declared that the probable cause was the suspicion that Heuring had committed a crime by removing the device, something the court was skeptical of from the start.
"I'm really struggling with how is that theft," Justice Steven David stated during oral arguments last November.
Once they raided Heuring’s home, police discovered methamphetamine and paraphernalia, and shortly thereafter charged him with drug dealing and theft of the GPS device.
The gambit didn’t turn out particularly well for law enforcement.
In the court ruling, first reported by Ars Technica, judges declared that law enforcement’s justification for the warrant was illegal. The ruling was also quick to note that even if police were able to prove Heuring had removed the device, it didn’t mean he had stolen it, and that suggesting otherwise opened the door to all manner of weedy problems.
"To find a fair probability of unauthorized control here, we would need to conclude the Hoosiers don't have the authority to remove unknown, unmarked objects from their personal vehicles," Chief Justice Loretta Rush said in the ruling.
The court went on to admonish Indiana law enforcement, suggesting that officers should have known better than to lean on such a flimsy excuse for probable cause. Under a principle known as the exclusionary rule, evidence obtained with an invalid search warrant can’t be included at trial, which could easily undermine the Warrick County Sheriff's Office entire case.
"We find it reckless for an officer-affiant to search a suspect's home and his father's barn based on nothing more than a hunch that a crime has been committed," the court wrote. "We are confident that applying the exclusionary rule here will deter similar reckless conduct in the future."
Of course, this is only a ruling in Indiana state court, but it bodes well for other, similar cases around the country.