Indiana high court: Removing a small unmarked device from your car isn’t theft.
An Indiana man may beat a drug prosecution after the state’s highest court threw out a search warrant against him late last week. The search warrant was based on the idea that the man had “stolen” a GPS tracking device belonging to the government. But Indiana’s Supreme Court concluded that he’d done no such thing—and the cops should have known it.
Last November, we wrote about the case of Derek Heuring, an Indiana man the Warrick County Sheriff’s Office suspected of selling meth. Authorities got a warrant to put a GPS tracker on Heuring’s car, getting a stream of data on his location for six days. But then the data stopped.
Officers suspected Heuring had discovered and removed the tracking device. After waiting for a few more days, they got a warrant to search his home and a barn belonging to his father. They argued the disappearance of the tracking device was evidence that Heuring had stolen it.
During their search, police found the tracking device and some methamphetamine. They charged Heuring with drug-related crimes as well as theft of the GPS device.
But at trial, Heuring’s lawyers argued that the warrant to search the home and barn had been illegal. An application for a search warrant must provide probable cause to believe a crime was committed. But removing a small, unmarked object from your personal vehicle is no crime at all, Heuring’s lawyers argued. Heuring had no way of knowing what the device was or who it belonged to—and certainly no obligation to leave the device on his vehicle.
An Indiana appeals court ruled against Heuring last year. But Indiana’s Supreme Court seemed more sympathetic to Heuring’s case during oral arguments last November.
“I’m really struggling with how is that theft,” said Justice Steven David during November’s oral arguments.
“We find it reckless”
Last Thursday, Indiana’s highest court made it official, ruling that the search warrant that allowed police to recover Heuring’s meth was illegal. The police had no more than a hunch that Heuring had removed the device, the court said, and that wasn’t enough to get a search warrant.
Even if the police could have proved that Heuring had removed the device, that wouldn’t prove he stole it, the high court said. It’s hard to “steal” something if you have no idea to whom it belongs. Classifying his action as theft would lead to absurd results, the court noted.
“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 for a unanimous court.
The high court’s ruling has big implications for Heuring’s case. Under a principle known as the exclusionary rule, evidence uncovered using an invalid search warrant is excluded from trial. Without the meth recovered in this search, prosecutors might not have enough evidence to mount a case against him.
The law allows a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule in some cases where police rely on a warrant that later proves defective. But Justice Rush concluded that exception doesn’t apply here.
“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,” the court wrote. “We are confident that applying the exclusionary rule here will deter similar reckless conduct in the future.”