State court says you can pull weird things off your car

| Feb 25, 2020 | Criminal Defense |

An interesting court ruling now helps define the limits of police searches in Indiana. The decision may remind you of a Georgia case we recently discussed involving a car’s GPS and an invalid search warrant.

In the new case, an Indiana man found something strange attached to his car, so he removed it. Days later, the police raided his property with a search warrant to find their “stolen” GPS tracker, which they had secretly attached to his car.

In its ruling, the Indiana Supreme Court refused “to conclude the Hoosiers don’t have the authority to remove unknown, unmarked objects from their personal vehicles.”

Police secretly install a tracker, expect it to stay put

The sheriff’s office of Warrick County (near Evansville) suspected the man was selling methamphetamine. So, they got a warrant to affix a GPS tracker to his car to gather more evidence.

The police secretly installed the unit, but after six days its flow of data stopped. Figuring the suspect had stolen their surveillance gear, they got a warrant to search his home and a barn belonging to his father.

The search turned up the tracker and some meth, so police arrested the man for drug crimes and stealing police equipment.

State Supreme Court finds the search “reckless”

The state’s Supreme Court ruled that the warrant allowing the police to search the property was illegal. Under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, police need to show probable cause, or a fairly strong reason to suspect, that a crime was committed. The court said the warrant failed for several reasons.

First, what is the crime in pulling a mysterious box off your car? How is that theft? In fact, why would the man not be legally authorized to do whatever he pleased with the box?

Second, police had only vague reasons to guess that the man took the GPS unit. Did his father or a friend, neighbor kid or mechanic take it?

As the court put it, “We find it reckless … to search a suspect’s home and his father’s barn based on nothing more than a hunch that a crime has been committed.”