8/6/2013Indiana Appeals Court: No Motorist Search Over Expired Tag
Police may not search belongings of motorists without cause to believe a crime has been committed, Indiana Appeals Court rules.
A motorist's bag cannot be searched because his car has an expired tag, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled last week. A divided three-judge panel overturned the conviction of Adam Miller, who was pulled over on January 9, 2011 for having an expired sticker on his license plate.
Bloomington Police Officer Jordan Hasler activated his lights and Miller pulled off into a parking lot. While waiting for Officer Hasler, Miller got out of his car and was ordered to return to his vehicle. This repeated three times. The fourth time, Officer Hasler put Miller in handcuffs outside the car and frisked him for weapons. None were found. Miller proved to be the lawful owner of the vehicle, though the tag was expired. After Officer Hasler noted Miller smelled of marijuana, he ordered Miller's car to be towed away because of the registration lapse. The towing allowed him to perform an inventory search of the vehicle under departmental policy.
Miller was handed a ticket and told he was free to go. Miller said he wanted to get his cell phone out of the backpack in his car. Officer Hasler decided to search the bag for "officer safety" and he found a Tupperware container of marijuana and a pipe. Officer Hasler also found a loaded handgun in a locked glove compartment, but Miller had a license to possess it. He was booked on one count of possession of paraphernalia. At trial, the backpack search became the center of controversy.
"If a person comes to me and says I want a backpack or I want a hat in my car and it's being inventoried, I'm going to search it for weapons prior to giving it back to him because I'm not going to hand him a case or a back pack after inventory in it that has a handgun or knife or something inside of it, for my safety," Officer Hasler testified.
Miller argued that the backpack search violated his Fourth Amendment rights because Officer Hasler had no real safety concern or reason to suspect a crime had been committed. The court majority agreed, finding the release from handcuffs showed the officer did not see Miller as a threat. Since the smell of marijuana was on Miller's clothing, not in the car, it could not be used as a justification for searching the backpack inside the vehicle.
"Because we conclude that Officer Hasler provided no facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonably prudent person to believe that a search would uncover evidence of a crime, probable cause to search Miller's backpack did not exist," Judge Patricia A. Riley wrote for the majority. "As a result, the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment cannot be applied to uphold the search. Therefore, the trial court erred by denying Miller's motion to suppress."
The court reversed Miller's conviction. A copy of the decision is available in a 300k PDF file at the source link below.