Their GPS Tracker, Your Car

What if you happened to find some odd gadget attached to your car? Why it’s there, who put it there, you can’t say, but one thing is for sure. It’s there, it doesn’t belong there and the car is yours. So you remove it because it’s your car.

Did you commit theft? The Supreme Court of Indiana has to deal with the peculiar question.

A man who removed a secretly installed GPS tracking device from his SUV is making his case to the Indiana Supreme Court. Justices last week heard the case of Derek Heuring, who had a warrant-authorized tracker placed on his 1999 Ford Expedition by the Warrick County Sheriff’s Office on July 11, 2018.

Heuring removed the unmarked box from his vehicle and left it in the family barn. Police eventually became suspicious that the GPS location readings were showing the car as always being parked in the same location. Then the device went dark. Detectives went to the barn to retrieve the tracking device from the car, but it was no longer attached. Based upon this, police applied for warrants to search Heuring’s home and that of his parents to find the missing GPS tracker. The warrant application asserted that Heuring had committed “theft” by removing the unidentified, magnetically attached six inch by four inch black box from his car.

This wasn’t the usual question of whether the police were authorized to track the car, as they had obtained a warrant to do so. But this authorization, it was argued, gave them a right to have it there, and Heuring’s removal, it was argued, violated that right and appropriated their property.

Heuring’s attorney Michael Keating argued the police could not allege theft if there was no way for his client to know who owned the tracking device. Keating suggested police could have placed a label on the device indicating ownership, or officers could have come to the door and asked Heuring for the device back. Prosecutors countered that police acted with judicial authorization at every step of the investigation.

Keating made the question about whether Heuring knew whose GPS Tracker it was, Could it have been some nefarious person who acted unlawfully and was tracking Heuring for improper purposes? How could Heuring know that it was a police tracker or that it was authorized by warrant?

The point being that one can’t commit a crime in the absence of notice, and since the cops obvlously didn’t want Heuring to know he was being tracked, it’s not as if they left him a note saying, “Yo, bud, that’s our tracker on your car, so don’t touch it.”

The consequence of Heuring’s removal of the tracker and placing it in his barn, was that the cops looked for it, found a meth pipe, which gave them cause to get a warrant to search for drugs. It wasn’t just the theft charge, but the consequent warrant based upon the theft.

The judges’ questions, statements, seemed appropriately dubious of the state’s argument.

Justice Mark S. Massa wondered whether it could ever be a crime to remove such a device from your own car.

“I’m not looking to make things easier for drug dealers,” Justice Massa said. “But if something is left on your car — even if you know it’s the police that are tracking you — you have an obligation to leave it there and let them track you? If you then take it off you’re somehow subject to a search of your home?”

Justice Steven H. David was equally skeptical.

“If someone wants to find me to do harm to me — and it’s not the police — and they put a tracking device on my car, and I find it and dispose of it after stomping on it twenty-five times, I would hope they would not be able to go to a local prosecutor and somehow I’m getting charges filed against me for destroying someone else’s property,” Justice David said.

What’s curious about both the arguments is the absence of argument about what interest was at issue when the police attach their GPS Tracker to another person’s property.

A lawyer for the government acknowledged that it wouldn’t be theft to remove a tracking device put there by a private party. But he argued that things are different when the government has a warrant to use a tracking device. The device had a legal basis for being on the car, the lawyer argued. By removing it and preventing tracking, Heuring was depriving the government of the use of its property.

It was not unlawful, given the warrant, for the police to trespass on Heuring’s property to attach the GPS Tracker to his car, but did the warrant create a property interest in the car such that they gained a property right greater than Heuring’s in that small area of his car to which the tracker was attached?

As a general precept, governments have no rights, only authority. The GPS Tracker was the property of the police, but when they attached it to someone else’s property without his knowledge or permission, did that give the police property rights in his vehicle? Did that reduce his property right in his vehicle? Does a person have the right to exercise discrimination about what things are attached to his vehicle?

As the argument relied heavily on the fact that Heuring didn’t know it was a police GPS Tracker authorized by warrant, he couldn’t commit theft by removing it as he lacked the knowledge that it was there lawfully. But what if he did know? What if he assumed, as one might expect any normal person to do, that random people won’t attach a GPS Tracker to their car, and the only entity likely to do so are the cops? Is he then obliged to leave their tracker attached to his car?

As much as a warrant can authorize the cops to trespass on Heuring’s property to place the tracker, it cannot convey some ownership right to the cops to his SUV. The car is still Heuring’s, and Heuring is entitled to do anything (lawful) he pleases with it, including removing extraneous objects that are placed on it, because it’s his car and no warrant can change that.

33 thoughts on “Their GPS Tracker, Your Car

      1. Fubar

        You beat me to it.

        Downside (or upside, take your choice): given their actions in the present case, the local gendarmarie and prosecutor could be expected to charge him with filing a false police report.

        Reply
  1. wilbur

    Just when I think I’ve heard it all, something like this pops up. Unbelievable.

    At the very least, somebody on the State’s side needs to get a clue, at least a hint of a clue. I would be ethically barred, if not completely embarrassed, to make such an argument before a court or anywhere else.

    Reply
  2. kemn

    Stupid non-lawyer question:

    If the PD puts a label on it, so that when looking, you identify it as a police GPS tracker, are you allowed to remove it because to leave it on could be violating your right against self-incrimination?

    Reply
      1. Black Bellamy

        What if I set my car on fire, then drive it off a giant cliff so it plummets in a graceful arc trailing smoke like a wounded Messerschmitt falling into the Channel and then it and the GPS tracker slowly sink to the bottom, along with Hitler’s dream of conquering England?

        Reply
      2. Jay Bravo

        In that case, another non-lawyer question.

        Per the July 18th Appelate decision, “the Warrick County Sheriff’s Office submitted an … application to place a GPS tracking device”. Is there any indication that this authority to PLACE extends to the authority to require it REMAIN?

        Reply
  3. Alexander

    Suppose that in the course of investigating a murder, the police get a warrant, search your house, and, perfectly lawfully, seize your gun. Suppose you then break into the evidence room and take it back. Apart from the crime or crimes you committed merely by breaking in, what crime have you committed by taking your gun? And whatever crime you have committed in that scenario, might you not be committing the same crime if you take a police GPS tracker off your car?

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      Suppose that space aliens insert a large tube in your rectum and inflate your brain with space alien air until it comes out your ears.

      Reply
          1. Alexander

            I’m not trolling. It seems like in the scenario I described, the cops have, in virtue of the warrant, some sort of claim to possession of your gun, and you are interfering with it. And if that’s a crime, then perhaps there is something parallel in the case where the police have lawfully attached a GPS tracker to your car and you remove it.

            Reply
  4. Kathryn Kase

    Until I read this post, I was a proud graduate of a Warrick County public high school. But its argument in SCOTI suggests that the Warrick County Sheriff’s Department is the midwestern embodiment of South Dakota’s slogan: “Meth. We’re On It.”

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      I heard they paid $500k for that slogan. Do you realize how many GPS Trackers they could have bought for that?
      null
      I’d have sold them “Just say no” for a mere $350k.

      Reply
  5. Hunting Guy

    I’d treat it as abandoned property.

    Just like the trucks and cars the coyotes leave on my mining claims, it’s mine to do with as I please.

    Reply
    1. wilbur

      Just a suggestion: you might want to check on the laws in your state before you do anything with abandoned or lost property.
      It’s not as simple as Finders Keepers.

      Reply
      1. Hunting Guy

        We follow all applicable laws and it can be time consuming.

        So far none of them have been worth trying for a title because they are so beat up. We sell them for scrap after the letters have been sent and the appropriate time has passed.

        Reply
  6. KP

    Well, do they offer payment to be a taxi driver as you chauffeur these black boxes around?
    Those cops are way behind the times, when the FBI was busted in exactly the same circumstances they bought new trackers that get hard-wired into the engine bay.

    Reply
  7. The Real Kurt

    Do the James Caan thing, from Thief.

    Attach it to a Greyhound bus.

    Or, in the alternative, in an area with public transit, a city/county bus.

    The Real Kurt

    Reply
  8. Jim Ryan

    THank goodness we have ATTORNEYS to contemplate the pluses and minuses in situations like this. I am so grateful for all of you. I especially like the reference to “…aliens insert a large tube in…”.
    That made my dya.
    I think I would lose said device (after wiping it for fingerprints) in the back seat of an Uber, or attach it to the underside of seat on a NYC-MTA Bus or subway.
    Again thanks!

    Reply
  9. M Tadros

    And how long is a person supposed to tolerate mysterious unlabeled boxes attached to their vehicle? A week? Two weeks? Two months? Two years? Three years? Ten?

    Are people supposed to remove it for safekeeping should they choose to sell their vehicle? Where would they put it? In their barn? Can they even sell the car, what, with the mystery box riding shotgun and all?

    And how is it theft if it moves from his vehicle to his barn? If you have company over and, after all the guests leave, you find a jacket you don’t recognize draped on a chair in your kitchen, are you supposed to just leave it right there, lest it contains a recording device, therefore being the rightful property of the state? Can you move the jacket to a closet in the bedroom? Or will that piss off whomever left the mysterious article of clothing, seeing as it if was a police recording device, they probably want it where right where they left it, so maybe you should just leave that jacket right where you discovered it? Can you move the chair to a closet in the bedroom? Or does the state now own your kitchen chair?

    And if so, then I’m right back to my first question: for how long? Until the statute of limitations for whatever you can imagine someone would be watching you runs out? Until the ex-girlfriend asks for it back? Until your insurance company calls to explain how it will lower your rates? Until it explodes? Forever?

    Reply

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