Is it Theft to Remove a Police Tracking Device from Your Vehicle?
In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled that government installation of a GPS tracking device on any vehicle for the purpose of tracking its movements constitutes a search. As a result, the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution mandates that police must obtain a warrant prior to the installation of such a tracking device. See United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012).
What if, however, the owner of the vehicle should happen to discover a GPS tracker on their vehicle and then remove it without the consent of the police? Is the owner guilty of theft if the removed tracker is not immediately returned to the police? In a case filed on February 20, 2020, (Heuring vs. State of Indiana) the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that such conduct does not amount to theft.
In the summer of 2018, Warrick County Sheriff’s deputies obtained a warrant to install a GPS tracking device on a Ford Expedition because they believed the owner was trafficking in illegal drugs. After several days of detailed tracking information, the GPS tracker stopped moving. Deputies then conducted covert surveillance on the vehicle to confirm that the vehicle was still operational. Convinced that the tracker had been removed without their permission, deputies obtained a search warrant for various buildings based on the theft of police property. Prior to finding the missing GPS device, deputies found illegal drugs and a handgun.
Theft is generally defined as “knowingly exercising unauthorized control” over the property of another. In the Warrick County case, the Indiana Supreme Court declared that the affidavits that supported that the search warrant never established that “unauthorized control” had been exerted over police property. All the affidavits indicated was that someone “found a small, unmarked black box attached to the vehicle, did not know what (or whose) the box was, and then took it off the car.”
To find probable cause that a theft had occurred, the Indiana Supreme Court noted that it would have to conclude that car owners “don’t have the authority to remove unknown, unmarked objects from their personal vehicles.” The Indiana high court deemed such a notion both “ludicrous” and “illogical.”
While a ruling from Indiana’s supreme court is not automatically binding on the Arizona courts, such decisions from other states can be persuasive. Retaining a competent criminal defense attorney who keeps up on the significant appellate court decisions throughout the country can make a huge difference in your search warrant case.
If you or a family member has had a GPS tracker installed on a vehicle, please give us a call at (480) 833-2341 we can help..
Attorney Profile: Brian D. Strong – Criminal Defense
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