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Justices uphold driver's license suspension

February 3, 2012

The Indiana Supreme Court has affirmed the suspension of a man’s driver’s license following his conviction of possessing marijuana. While the driver’s license suspension statute generally applies only when the defendant uses the vehicle in the commission of the offense, it’s not required that the defendant must either own or be driving the vehicle when he commits the offense.

In Michael B. Adams v. State of Indiana, No. 29S02-1109-CR-542, Michael Adams was a passenger in a car pulled over for speeding. The officer smelled burnt marijuana and later discovered a jar of marijuana on the floor of the passenger’s side of the car, where Adams feet would have been. After being found guilty of possession of marijuana, the trial judge suspended Adams’ license and registration for 180 days pursuant to Indiana Code 35-48-4-15(a), believing that the driver’s license suspension statute left her no discretion in the matter even though Adams wasn’t driving the car.

Adams argued that the statute couldn’t have applied to him because he didn’t drive or own the car; the state argued that any use of a vehicle by a defendant requires the court to suspend the defendant’s driver’s license and registration. The justices reached a conclusion in between the parties’ arguments.

The justices concluded that the statute requires proof that the defendant used a motor vehicle, at least in cases in which the defendant’s liability doesn’t turn on an accomplice theory. However, it doesn’t follow that the defendant must either own or be driving the car when he commits the offense, wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. A defendant could use the car by hiding drugs in the trunk or selling drugs out of the window.

“The State must demonstrate that a defendant made more than an incidental use of a motor vehicle in committing his offense, but once the State makes this showing, then a trial court must order the defendant’s driver’s license, registration, and ability to register other vehicles suspended. The court may exercise its discretion only in setting the length of that suspension,” he wrote.

 

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