12/16/2016Indiana Supreme Court Overturns Driver Welfare Traffic Stop
Privacy rights of motorists win out over the police desire to conduct a welfare search in Indiana high court ruling.
The Indiana Supreme Court last month ruled that it is more important for police to respect the privacy of drivers than to pull them over to check whether they are in need of assistance. The justices took up the case of Mary Osborne, who on December 14, 2014 forgot to use the parking brake on her black BMW at a Marathon gas station in Fishers. The car rolled backward and briefly pinned her under the car.
The gas station attendant called 911, and Officer Jason Arnold arrived on the scene, only to watch as the BMW safely drove away. Officer Arnold did not see any traffic violations, but he decided to stop her anyway.
"I was concerned that [she] potentially could have been seriously injured, broken bones or anything," he testified. "Or something was wrong with them that started this whole thing to begin with because it's not normal behavior."
Osborne was fine physically, and she told the officer as much. The conversation quickly turned into an investigation as the officer smelled alcohol on her breath. The issue before the Supreme Court was not whether she was guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI), rather it was whether Officer Osborne had any business pulling her over in the first place.
Under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, police cannot seize motorists without reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed. The courts, however has developed an exception allowing "community caretaking" stops in which an officer acts to protect a citizen who might be in danger.
"Turning to the instant matter, Officer Arnold responded to a report that a woman was trapped under her car, which undoubtedly could give rise to a reasonable concern that emergency medical assistance was needed, prompting further investigation," Justice Mark S. Massa wrote for the court. "However, the actual facts he subsequently confronted did not objectively support that concern: Officer Arnold learned that Osborne had freed herself prior to his arrival at the gas station, Osborne operated her vehicle normally, and Officer Arnold witnessed no traffic infractions or criminal conduct."
The judges took Officer Arnold at his word that his motive was genuine, but objectively they saw no need for the stop.
"In a close case on these unique facts, we err, if at all, on protecting the privacy rights of Hoosiers against intrusion by the state," Justice Massa wrote. "Accordingly, we find that the state has failed to carry its burden of showing that an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment justified the stop."
A copy of the ruling is available in a 70k PDF file at the source link below.