If You Discover and Remove a GPS Tracking Device From Your Car, Is It Theft?
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police may attach a GPS tracking device to your car, unbeknownst to you, if they obtain a search warrant.
But what if you discover a police-ordered GPS tracker on your car, have no idea where it came from, remove it, and toss it onto a shelf in your garage?
And then, what if the police grow suspicious that the tracker has become static, identify its location within your garage, and then obtain a second search warrant to enter your property on the grounds that you've stolen the tracker?
That is essentially what happened in 2018 to Derek Heuring, a 35-year-old resident of Boonville, Indiana, whom the Warrick County Sheriff's office suspected was using his 1999 Ford Expedition to transport methamphetamines. After getting a warrant, deputies attached the GPS tracker to the vehicle. After a few days, the tracker was not providing any readings, and so the officers decided they needed to retrieve it. When they looked under the car, parked outside Heuring's residence, they saw it was gone.
Contending that the missing tracker provided probable cause that it had been stolen, the sheriff's office was able to get a warrant to search Heuring's property, where they found methamphetamines and related paraphernalia, and arrested him on drug felony charges.
State Supreme Court Will Decide
Heuring has continued to argue that there was insufficient evidence to believe that the tracker had been stolen — it could have fallen off or ceased functioning, he contends — and besides, he argues, there was nothing on the tracker to connote ownership. So the evidence from the search, he says, should be suppressed.
It's an intriguing question: If you discover and remove an unknown GPS tracker on your car, even if the police put it there, does that mean you stole it?
A trial court and the Indiana Court of Appeals have sided with law enforcement, but the Indiana Supreme Court agreed to take it up, hearing arguments on Nov. 7. And at that hearing, justices expressed at least some skepticism about the sheriff's office's justification for the warrant. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported that Justice Steven David said he is "struggling with the idea that it's theft to find a device on your car and simply place it on your kitchen table. And … there is nothing on the device saying it belongs to police."
The court is expected to rule in the coming weeks or months.
Other Laws Governing GPS Removals
Meanwhile, since the Indiana case might raise questions about how the law governs vehicle GPS removals in other ways, a brief review might be warranted. While the law requiring police to get a warrant before they attach a GPS to a suspect's car is clear and widely known, a few other GPS laws might not be:
- If a car is used as collateral for a loan, creditors may use a GPS to record the car's movement — but the borrower must agree to its attachment.
- If you have given a lender permission to attach a GPS by signing your name on a legal document, removal could mean losing the car.
- If you are going to buy a new car with a built-in GPS that you don't want, you should ask the dealer to have it removed. If you remove it yourself, you could void the warranty.
- Government's Warrantless GPS Tracking Violates 4th Amendment (FindLaw's Third Circuit Blog)
- OK to Track Cheating Spouses With GPS? (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
- Can Courts Track Sex Offenders With GPS? (FindLaw's Technologist)
- Constitution Allows Boat GPS Search With Consent (FindLaw's Eleventh Circuit Blog)
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