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Is It Considered Theft if You Remove a Law Enforcement G.P.S. Tracking Device from Your Automobile?


8/31/2020

Technology continues to improve the lives of Americans, providing new abilities and innovations. With such technology, it is often difficult to determine how extant laws should apply and how an individual’s rights are affected, leaving citizens and law enforcement to walk a legal tightrope. Such is the case with G.P.S. tracking devices used by law enforcement agencies as a means to gather evidence. If you have questions about these G.P.S. tracking devices in regards to your legal rights, reach out to a knowledgeable Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer today.

Supreme Court Ruling on Law Enforcement G.P.S. Use

In 2012, the Supreme Court gave law enforcement agencies the authority to place G.P.S. tracking devices on an individual’s vehicle without the individual’s knowledge or consent. The only stipulation is that law enforcement must first obtain a search warrant. The Supreme Court Justices determined in United States v. Antoine Jones that attaching a G.P.S. device to monitor the movements of a particular individual’s vehicle is a type of search. All searches typically require warrants; without them, the individual risks having their 4th Amendment Constitutional rights violated. If evidence is gathered through a G.P.S. monitoring device by law enforcement officers who did not first obtain the necessary search warrant, that evidence is inadmissible in court. 

In this particular case, the F.B.I. and the District of Columbia Police Department attached a hidden G.P.S. device to a vehicle belonging to Antoine Jones, a suspected drug dealer. The G.P.S. device was placed on his vehicle while on public property and remained there for a total of 28 days. Partially based on the evidence gathered through the G.P.S. device, Jones was convicted on drug charges. Since no search warrant had been secure beforehand, the Supreme Court ruled that the evidence was inadmissible in court and overturned his conviction.

Removal of G.P.S. Devices by the Vehicle’s Owner

In 2018, an Indiana man discovered a G.P.S. tracker placed by law enforcement on his vehicle. The police put the tracker there because they suspected the man was using his 1999 Ford Expedition to transport methamphetamines. At the time, the man did not know where the tracker came from or who put it there. He removed it and store it on a shelf in his garage. 

The Warrick County Sheriff’s Office soon noticed that the tracker was no longer showing any movement, raising their suspicions. They discovered that the tracker was in the man’s garage. Subsequently, the sheriff’s office obtained a valid second search warrant (the first being the warrant for the tracker) based on the grounds that the man stole the G.P.S. tracker by removing it. While executing the warrant, sheriff’s officers found methamphetamines and related drug paraphernalia on his property. He was arrested and charged with related felony drug charges and the theft of the G.P.S. device.

The man’s criminal defense attorney argued that there was not enough evidence for the sheriff’s office or the judge to suspect that the tracker was stolen. It could have simply fallen off or malfunctioned. Furthermore, there was nothing on the tracker that revealed who owned it. How could it be considered stolen? The defense believed that all evidence found in relation to the second search warrant should be suppressed.

How the Courts Ruled

A local trial court and the Indiana Court of Appeals took the side of law enforcement in this case. They upheld that the tracker was stolen and that the second warrant’s evidence was admissible in court. The man and his attorney decided to take the case to the Indiana Supreme Court, who agreed to hear the case in November of 2019.

Justice Steven David stated that finding a device on your vehicle, removing it, but leaving it on your property was not considered theft, especially if there was nothing on the device to indicate to whom it belonged. The Indiana Supreme Court later ruled that the search warrant used to find the man’s meth and the G.P.S. tracking device was illegal, as the sheriff’s office did not have probable cause to obtain a warrant. Even if the sheriff’s office could have proven that the man removed the tracker, they could not have proven that he stole it. The Court ruled that a person cannot steal something without knowing to whom it belongs. To agree with the lower courts, the Indiana Supreme Court would need to conclude that people do not have the right to remove unknown and unmarked objects from their own vehicles, a ruling with which the Court could not agree.  

In some cases, an exception applies if the evidence is found by using an invalid search warrant but obtained and executed in good faith. The Court ruled, however, that this exception did not apply in the man’s case. Therefore, the rulings of the lower courts were overturned and the man walked free.

Pennsylvania and Law Enforcement G.P.S. Tracking Devices 

In Pennsylvania, there are no laws yet that directly address the type of situation examined above. However, the Indiana man’s case will be used as case law to set a precedent for similar incidents across the country. If you believe you are in a similar situation or have another legal issue that involved law enforcement placing a G.P.S. tracking device on your vehicle, reach out to an experienced Philadelphia criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

A Seasoned Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney Can Seek Justice for You

Don’t delay in getting legal help for your criminal charges from a seasoned Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer. Whether your case involves a G.P.S. tracking device, the admissibility of evidence at trial, or a search warrant of questionable legality, we are here to help. Schedule your criminal defense case consultation today by calling Wimmer Criminal Defense Law at 215-712-1212 or using our confidential online contact form.