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What Does The Law Say About Tampering With Police GPS Trackers?

Sam Hendren

The brother of one of the eight people killed in last year's Pike County massacre faces felony charges of tampering with evidence after prosecutors say he destroyed a GPS tracking device that investigators planted on his truck.

Agents had a warrant to bug the truck of 40-year-old James Manley, the brother of victim Dana Rhoden, but he wasn’t informed of the warrant until after he discovered the tracker. The device was placed on the truck April 22 and stopped functioning April 28, according to Manley's arrest warrant.

After turning himself in on Tuesday, Manley was jailed and appeared in court on Wednesday. The judge setting an $80,000 bond, The Associated Press says, and court records don't indicate if he has an attorney.

Ric Simmons, a professor of law at The Ohio State University, says the prosecutors will have to clear a few obstacles to make the charges stick.

“They’ll have to prove he did know what that device was, and that it was collecting information for an investigation, and that he destroyed the device with the intent to impede that investigation," Simmons says. "So they’ll have to prove that in court if they want to win the case.”

Simmons says the investigators were well within their rights to place a GPS tracker on Manley’s truck.

“If they’ve got a search warrant from the court, they had to prove probable cause to believe that a crime was being committed or had been committed and that this would lead to evidence," Simmons says.

And investigators weren't required to alert Manley he was being tracked.

"Once they get that warrant, they don’t have to tell you that they’re searching your house or they’re searching your truck, or that they’re putting a GPS device, because they have court authorization to do so,” Manley says.

Simmons says the necessity of obtaining that warrant, however, is relatively new.

“It’s becoming a lot more common obviously because of the technology that is there," Simmons says. 

In 2012 and 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that placing a GPS tracker on a person, a car or any personal items counts as a search, which is covered by the Fourth Amendment - protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

"Before this case, the police were allowed to put GPS devices on our car without any kind of warrant at all," Simmons says. "So now at least they have to go to a court and get a court authorization for this before they can track us with GPS devices, at least if they want to do it for a long period of time as they were here.”

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.