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Arrest upheld after seatbelt stop

May 22, 2009

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a defendant's motion to suppress evidence following a traffic stop for a seatbelt violation, finding the police officer's inquiry regarding an object in the man's pants didn't violate his constitutional rights or the Seatbelt Enforcement Act.

In State of Indiana v. Robert Richardson,  No. 49A02-0807-CR-583, the state appealed the grant of Robert Richardson's motion to suppress evidence after he was arrested following a traffic stop. The officer believed Richardson was carrying a gun without a valid permit and later discovered cocaine in Richardson's pants. The officer originally pulled Richardson over for a seatbelt violation. As she was talking to his passenger, she noticed a large bulge in his pants, which was his handgun. Suspecting Richardson's gun permit could be forged, she radioed for information on whether Richardson had any prior felonies. Headquarters said he did, so she arrested him for having a firearm with a prior felony conviction in the last 15 years. He tried to run away, and in an attempt to subdue Richardson the officer discovered cocaine in his pants.

Using previous caselaw regarding the Seatbelt Enforcement Act, the appellate court ruled it wasn't impermissible under the act for the officer to ask a motorist what the large object in his pants was. The inquiry didn't exceed the scope of police behavior permitted under the Seatbelt Enforcement Act; Article I, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution; or the Fourth Amendment, wrote Judge Paul Mathias.

The Court of Appeals also had to address the propriety of Richardson's arrest for carrying a handgun. When Richardson handed the officer his gun permit, it had been issued a year prior to the traffic stop, which means if it was a valid license, it would have been good for three more years or for life. Because it was tattered and the officer couldn't read the expiration date, she believed it could be forged. Headquarters told the officer Richardson had a felony on his record, but Richardson argued it was a misdemeanor. At this point, the officer had good reason to suspect the validity of Richardson's handgun license and therefore had probable cause to arrest him for carrying a handgun without a valid license, wrote the judge.

But the appellate review doesn't stop there, because the information the officer received was incorrect because Richardson didn't have a prior felony conviction. The Court of Appeals had to determine whether the evidence found as a result of this arrest, which was later found to be improper, should be suppressed under the exclusionary rule, noted Judge Mathias. Using the recent ruling in Herring v. United States, 129 S.Ct. 695 (2009), as a guide, the appellate court believed the application of the rule as stated in Herring is proper in the instant case. The incorrect information by itself is not enough to justify suppression of evidence discovered as a result of an arrest, wrote Judge Mathias. The mistake in the instant case, just as in Herring, appears to be a "police mistake" which was the result of negligence, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements. As such, exclusion isn't justified.

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