2/10/2015Indiana: Traffic Cops May Not Open Pill Bottles
Indiana Court of Appeals rules that traffic cops may not look through the pill bottles of motorists without legitimate suspicion.
Police have no business looking through the pill bottles belonging to a motorist stopped for a routine traffic violation. That was the conclusion of a three-judge panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals, which last month reversed Antonio Garcia's conviction on drug charges because an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police officer violated the state constitution.
At around 9pm on August 6, 2012, Officer Philip Robinett saw a white Chevrolet Trailblazer that did not have its headlights on. The SUV pulled over and parked on the side of the street without signaling. Officer Robinett hit his lights and ordered Garcia to get back in the car. Garcia is not a US citizen, so he was arrested for driving without a license. A frisk revealed that Garcia had a pill bottle in his pocket, and the officer could not resist taking a look inside.
"Every time I've either -- I've located either some type of illegal substance or -- unless it is a pill that is properly prescribed," Officer Robinett testified. "That's the only time I've seen it to where the substance inside this cylinder is a legal substance."
The container held half a pill with markings indicating it was hydrocodone, a painkiller for which Garcia had no prescription -- a class D felony. Under federal case law, Officer Robinett's search would be considered valid, but Indiana offers greater protection to its residents.
"The degree of concern, knowledge, or suspicion that a criminal violation had occurred with respect to the pill vial was low prior to opening the container," Judge Terry A. Crone wrote for the three-judge panel. "Although there could be situations in which the police find an unfamiliar object on a person through a search incident to arrest that may justify further investigation, that situation did not occur here. There is no evidence in the record that Officer Robinett had any concern or suspicion that the container held anything that threatened his or the public's safety."
Prosecutors admit that they would not have had enough evidence to go to a judge and seek a warrant to open the container, as there was no reason to suspect Garcia had illegal drugs.
"There was no need for law enforcement to preserve evidence relating to the offense for which Garcia was arrested," Judge Crone wrote. "Also, there were no circumstances unrelated to the reason for the arrest that led Officer Robinett to suspect that Garcia was impaired, had engaged in any illegal drug use, or was involved in any illegal drug dealing."
Because the search was unreasonable, the court dismissed the drug possession charge. A copy of the decision is available in a 180k PDF file at the source link below.