For about a week in summer 2018, Indiana authorities monitored a suspected drug dealer’s movements using a GPS tracking device they had surreptitiously placed on his Ford Expedition. One night, the tracker went dark. A Warrick County sheriff’s deputy went to investigate and discovered that the device was gone.

In a move that appeared to perplex Indiana Supreme Court justices reviewing the case, the alleged dealer — a Boonville, Ind., man named Derek Heuring — was charged with theft for taking it off. The case raises questions about both private and government surveillance, potentially having ramifications beyond Heuring and his legal situation.

“I’m not looking to make things easier for drug dealers,” Justice Mark Massa said during oral arguments Nov. 7. “But 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?”

The case dates to July 11, 2018, when deputies in the southwest Indiana county applied for a warrant to track Heuring’s vehicle, believing he was using it to deal methamphetamine. A judge granted permission, and police placed the magnetic tracker on the vehicle July 13.

The device signaled its location until July 20. Technicians said the battery remained fully charged, leading the deputies to investigate further. They conducted surveillance of Heuring’s home and his parents’ home. Spotting the SUV in a barn on the parents’ property, they thought perhaps the barn was interfering with the device’s reception.

But by July 30, the vehicle was back at Heuring’s home and the tracker still wasn’t signaling its location. That’s when the deputies discovered that it was no longer attached to the Explorer.

They sought warrants to search Heuring’s home and the barn, alleging that there was probable cause that a crime had been committed — that Heuring had committed theft by taking off the GPS tracker. While searching the barn, they found the tracker in a bathroom locker. They also found evidence of drug use: a glass pipe.

A subsequent search, granted by a judge based on the paraphernalia, uncovered bags of methamphetamine, pills, digital scales and a gun. Heuring was charged with drug dealing and with theft.

His lawyer, Michael Keating, is arguing that the search was illegal because there was not sufficient evidence that Heuring had committed a crime. The GPS device could have fallen off by mistake, he argued. Besides, Keating said, there was no indication that it belonged to law enforcement.

During the Nov. 7 oral arguments, the Supreme Court justices expressed concern about what the case could mean for private use of surveillance devices.

“What if it’s not the police’s tracker device?” asked Justice Geoffrey Slaughter. “What if instead it belongs to the jilted girlfriend or the nosy neighbor? Is it also theft if he removes that device from his vehicle?”

Deputy Attorney General Jesse Drum argued that the deputies had not acted in bad faith and had done everything by the book, noting that they “sought judicial approval for every step of their investigation in this case.” He said trackers placed by the government under a warrant are distinct from those placed by private citizens. Removing a device from a car where it has a legal basis to be “deprives the police of its use,” he claimed, and constitutes a crime.

The court is considering the case, with a ruling expected in the next few months.

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