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Indiana Supreme Court: Removal of Police’s GPS Tracker on Suspect’s Vehicle Not Probable Cause of Theft, Suppression of Evidence

The Supreme Court of Indiana suppressed all evidence resulting from search warrants obtained on the basis that the sheriff’s department concluded a suspect “stole” the GPS device being used to track him when it failed to transmit its location for 10 days.

Derek Heuring was suspected of dealing methamphetamines by the Warrick County Sheriff’s Department, and in 2018, Officers Young and Busing obtained a warrant to attach a GPS tracker to Heuring’s Ford Expedition. The tracker was a black box, approximately 4 inches by 6 inches, and had no discernable markings. The warrant authorized 30 days of tracking, but the device failed to transmit its location after only seven days.

Officers noticed the vehicle inside Heuring’s father’s barn and believed the barn might be interfering with the signal. Ten days after receiving the last location notification from the device, the officers drove by Heuring’s home and the barn twice and confirmed the vehicle was not in the barn. However, the device was still not transmitting its location, and a technician advised the officers that this could be caused by someone tampering with the device. Officer Young tried to retrieve the device, but it was no longer attached to the vehicle.

Officer Busing obtained a warrant to search the home and barn for evidence of “theft” of the GPS device. A search of the home and barn resulted in the recovery of the device, as well as drugs, drug paraphernalia, and a handgun.

Before trial, Heuring moved to suppress the evidence on the grounds that the search warrant lacked reliable indicia to establish probable cause for theft. The district court and the Court of Appeals denied his motion, but the Indiana Supreme Court reversed.

An appeals court applies a deferential standard to probable cause findings by magistrates in issuing a warrant, but this deference “is not boundless.” United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984). A search warrant issued without probable cause is invalid and thus the subsequent search illegal. Shotts v. State, 925 N.E.2d 719 (Ind. 2010).

To establish probable cause for theft, the officers had to state enough facts to allege that Heuring exercised control over the property of the sheriff’s department (the GPS tracker) and that he did so “knowingly.” I.C. Section 35-43-4-1(a). However, the Court found the officers did not allege sufficient facts to meet this burden. “To find a fair probability of unauthorized control here, we would need to conclude that Hoosiers don’t have the authority to remove unknown, unmarked objects from their personal vehicles.” Thus, Heuring could not knowingly deprive the sheriff’s department of its property by removing the unlabeled, foreign object from his own truck, as he could not have known it belonged to the sheriff’s department.

This failure of the allegation did not necessarily mandate suppression of the evidence if the State could prove the officers acted in good faith. Leon. This is not subjective, but rather a test of whether a “reasonably well trained officer would have known that the search was illegal despite the magistrate’s authorization.” Id. Noting that a hunch does not meet the burden of establishing probable cause as per Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393 (2014), the Court found the warrant applications amounted to no more than a “hunch” based on “noncriminal behavior.”

In addition, the Court characterized the actions of the officers in conducting the search based on the facts presented in this case as “reckless.” The Court explained “that applying the exclusionary rule here will deter similar reckless conduct in the future.” Thus, the Court ruled that “the exclusionary rule requires suppression of all evidence seized from Heuring’s home and his father’s barn” during the initial searches of those locations, as well as all evidence seized during subsequent searches as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963).

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Related legal case

Heuring v. State



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