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Trial court improperly suspended driving privileges for life

April 4, 2013

A Marion Superior Court exceeded statutory authority when it suspended a man’s driving privileges for life, the Indiana Court of Appeals has held. At the time Thomas Porter was arrested and charged, his driving privileges were suspended for life, but that was no longer the case when he was sentenced.

In Thomas Porter v. State of Indiana, 49A02-1205-CR-398, Thomas Porter was pulled over by a police officer because the officer was unable to read Porter’s license plate from 50 feet away based on poor lighting around the plate. He was charged with Class D felony operating a motor vehicle while being a habitual traffic violator and Class C felony operating a motor vehicle after his license had been forfeited for life.

Porter filed a motion to suppress and challenged every stage of the encounter. He claimed the lights had never been modified, and he could see the license plate in person. Photographs introduced by the state showed a shadow over part of the plate.

The judge found Porter guilty of the Class C felony and dismissed the other count out of double jeopardy concerns. At his sentencing hearing, the judge learned that Porter’s conviction in an arrest in 2008 in another county had been reduced to a misdemeanor, so his license was no longer suspended for life. The state sought to suspend Porter’s license for life, which the trial court granted.

“The record reveals evidence that Officer Montgomery had a reasonable and objectively justifiable basis for making the initial traffic stop. Even assuming that Porter’s vehicle met federal regulations, we cannot say that Officer Montgomery lacked reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop of Porter’s vehicle when he could not see the license plate from fifty feet away,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote.

The judges looked at Indiana Code 9-30-10-16 and -17 and found Section 17 does not provide for a lifetime suspension.

“Mindful that penal statutes should be construed strictly against the State, that ambiguities should be resolved in favor of the accused, and that the judicial function is to apply the laws as enacted by the legislature, we conclude that the trial court exceeded statutory authority and improperly suspended Porter’s driving privileges for life,” Brown wrote.

The case is remanded for further proceedings.

 

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