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COA: Stop lacked reasonable suspicion

January 1, 2008
The Indiana Court of Appeals overturned a defendant's drug conviction because the traffic stop that led to his arrest was unconstitutional; the police officer who pulled the car over didn't have reasonable suspicion there was criminal activity going on in the car.

Damen Holly appealed his conviction of possession of marijuana as a Class A misdemeanor in Damen Holly v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-0711-CR-930. Holly was pulled over by a police officer after the officer ran a license plate check of the vehicle Holly was driving. The check revealed the car was registered to a woman named Terry Sumler and her license was suspended.

The police officer was unable to see if Sumler was driving the car, so he pulled it over. Sumler was a passenger in the car and Holly was driving. Holly also had a suspended license.

The officer ordered Sumler, Holly, and another passenger to get out of the car while another police officer searched the vehicle. During the search, the officer discovered marijuana; Holly admitted the drugs were his.

At his trial, Holly moved to suppress the marijuana evidence, arguing officers lacked reasonable suspicion to stop the car and search it. The trial court denied the motion, and he was convicted.

The trial court abused its discretion in admitting the evidence, ruled the Court of Appeals, and reversed Holly's conviction. The appellate court based its reversal on Wilkinson v. State, 743 N.E.2d 1267 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), which ruled an officer has to have a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot and that the officer's knowledge that a car's owner lacks a valid license, by itself, isn't enough to give the officer reasonable suspicion to stop a car.

"In a case such as this where the officer has observed absolutely nothing that would indicate that the driver of the vehicle is the owner and the officer has no reason to believe that the vehicle is stolen or that a law is otherwise being broken, the officer lacks objective justification for conducting an investigatory stop," wrote Judge Nancy Vaidik.

As such, the police officer didn't have reasonable suspicion to pull Holly over and search the car. Any evidence collected during the stop - including the marijuana - is inadmissible under the Fourth Amendment, she wrote. The remaining evidence is insufficient to support his conviction, so his conviction is reversed.
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