Back in 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that it’s illegal for the police to attach a GPS tracking device to someone’s car without a warrant. But what if you find a GPS tracking device on your car? Can you remove it?
A little more than a year ago, the state of Indiana charged a suspected drug dealer with theft for removing a government-owned GPS tracking device from his SUV. This month, the state’s Supreme Court began considering the case, and some justices seemed skeptical of the government’s argument.
“I’m really struggling with how is that theft,” said Justice Steven David during recent oral arguments.
One time in Warrick County
The case began in July 2018, when the Warrick County Sheriff’s Office got a warrant to attach a GPS tracking device to Derek Heuring’s car. Information from a confidential informant had led them to believe that Heuring was using the vehicle to sell meth.
The GPS device transmitted data for a little more than a week. Then it stopped. Officers suspected Heuring had discovered and removed it.
After waiting another 10 days to see if it would start working again, detectives applied for a warrant to search Heuring’s home and a nearby property belonging to Heuring’s parents. US law requires law enforcement to show probable cause that a crime had been committed before engaging in a search. In this case, police said they suspected that Heuring had committed the crime of theft by taking the GPS device.
Police did find the tracking device. They also found methamphatamine and drug paraphernalia—evidence that police say show that Heuring had been dealing drugs.
So Heuring was charged both with drug dealing and with theft of the GPS device.
Is it theft to remove a GPS tracking device?
At trial, Heuring’s legal team argued that the search had been illegal because the police didn’t have probable cause to believe their client had committed theft. The defense pointed out that the device could have fallen off the car by accident or simply malfunctioned.
Even if Heuring did take the device off the vehicle, he couldn’t have known for sure that it belonged to the government. It wasn’t exactly labeled as the property of the Warrick County Sheriff’s Office. Most important, it’s not clear that taking an unwanted device off your car is theft—even if you know who it belongs to.