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COA: Gun test-firing not an unlawful search

September 19, 2008

Routine test-firing of handguns that police have in their custody isn't a violation of a person's Fourth Amendment rights, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today.

Deciding a case of first impression in Dannie Engram v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-0801-CR-105, the appellate panel unanimously affirmed a ruling from a Marion Superior judge on the appellant-defendant's convictions for murder and aggravated battery. Engram was arrested after a 2004 traffic stop when police found he was driving with a suspended license, and police took his licensed .45 caliber handgun. Police test-fired the weapon according to department policy and recorded the results in a national ballistics database.

Two years later, those ballistics results showed the weapon was used in a June 2006 street shooting where Engram was identified as a possible suspect; he was arrested and charged. The trial court allowed the ballistics results to be used as evidence, and Engram objected. A jury found him guilty of murder and aggravated battery, for which he was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

On appeal, Engram argued that the results of the 2004 ballistics test should have been suppressed because the test was performed without probable cause, a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights protecting him from unlawful searches. He contended the test-firing "constituted a search which exceeded the scope of any inventory or care taking purpose."

The court questioned whether Engram expressed any expectation of privacy and, if so, whether that expectation can be viewed as reasonable. The appellate judges decided against Engram in both questions. The court determined that the test-firing didn't reveal any private information but provided an additional means to identify his weapon apart from the serial number.

"Engram has not shown that the markings made by his firearm on bullets and casings constitutes a privacy interest that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable," Judge Edward Najam wrote. "Given the dangers of firearms when improperly used and the connection between firearms and violent crime, we cannot conclude that society is willing to recognize a privacy interest in the markings made by firearms on bullets and casings."

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