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Search for Tracking Device was Not Legally Executed, Court Concludes

— March 6, 2020

Search for tracker was not executed properly, so officers can’t use drug evidence.

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of Derek Heuring, who was charged with theft for allegedly removing a GPS tracking device from his vehicle that had been put there by police officers.  The court issued an opinion stating search warrants for the device conducted in Heuring’s home and barn were invalid.  Warrick County Sheriff Department officers had obtained the warrant and attached the GPS to Heuring’s Ford Expedition in July 2018 because they believed he was dealing methamphetamine.

The detachment was detected when police noticed the tracking device had stopped providing location updates and went to retrieve the GPS.  A technician said the device needed a “hard reset” because it may have been unplugged and plugged back into the battery, and the officer realized it was no longer on the vehicle.

According to police reports, when officers conducted the search for the missing tracker, they also discovered drugs, drug paraphernalia and a handgun.  They eventually found the GPS and “additional contraband,” the state supreme court said.  Yet, they will now be forced to eliminate all this evidence because the initial warrant was not legally executed and “affidavits filed by the officers in support of the search warrant failed to establish probable cause.”

Search for Tracking Device was Not Legally Executed, Court Concludes
Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

“I’m really struggling with how is that theft,” said Justice Steven David, referring to the search for the device during oral arguments.

“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 wrote.

First the warrants lacked information that the person who removed the device was aware of the need to get consent from the sheriff’s department.  The officers’ affidavits “support a fair probability only that Heuring – or 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,” the court said.  It added, “The affidavits lacked information that there was an intent to deprive the sheriff’s department of the value or use of the GPS device…The affidavits support nothing more than speculation – a hunch that someone removed the device with the conscious objective to deprive the sheriff’s department of its value or use.”

Because the affidavits were “so lacking in indicia of probable cause, officers cannot use the evidence under a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule,” concluded the court. “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.  We are confident that applying the exclusionary rule here will deter similar reckless conduct in the future.”

What’s more, it stated, “The initial search warrants were invalid because the accompanying affidavits did not provide a substantial basis to support the magistrate’s probable cause finding. Further, the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule does not apply, and thus, the evidence obtained from Heuring’s home and his father’s barn must be suppressed.  We reverse and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.”


Removing a GPS tracking device from your car isn’t theft, court rules

State supreme court rules for man charged with theft for removing GPS planted on his car by cops

Supreme Court Case No. 19S-CR-528, Derek Heuring vs. State of Indiana

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