In first impression ruling, COA reverses trial court on illegal search

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled that a police officer went one step too far when he opened a pill bottle he found in a man’s pocket.

In Justin M. Corwin v. State of Indiana, No. 79A04-1005-CR-296, Justin Corwin appealed his arrest for Class C felony possession of a controlled substance, claiming that police officer Kevin Flynn conducted an illegal search.

Flynn was looking for Kyle Balser, who had an active arrest warrant, on June 25, 2009. In the apartment complex where he believed Balser to be, he saw Corwin from a distance of 50 yards and believed he might be Balser.

Flynn observed Corwin acting suspiciously, and eventually climbing into the back seat of a van. The officer approached the van, and Corwin ignored repeated requests to give his name or exit the van, placing his hands in his pockets. He eventually got out, and Flynn did a pat-down search for weapons. He noticed Corwin’s clothes smelled of burnt marijuana, and he found a folding knife and a wallet during the search. The identification in the wallet indicated the man was not Balser.

When Flynn felt a circular object in Corwin’s pants pocket, he asked what it was, but Corwin didn’t respond. Flynn removed the bottle, opened it and found generic Xanax pills, for which Corwin did not have a prescription. He then arrested Corwin.

A police officer may briefly detain a person for investigatory purposes without a warrant if, based on specific and articulable facts, the officer has reasonable suspicion that criminal activity “may be afoot.” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968). But in this case, the COA held that no evidence existed to suggest Flynn knew or suspected Corwin had a history of drug crimes.

The state argued that the pill bottle’s illicit nature was immediately apparent, as the prescription label had been altered, but the trial court records do not indicate whether Flynn noticed that before or after he opened the bottle.   

The COA held that when the officer opened the pill bottle to determine the contents, he ran afoul of the limits of a Terry stop, and therefore the pills found in the bottle, and all evidence of their discovery, should have been suppressed. Accordingly, the COA reversed the trial court.



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