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Justices: Officer had reasonable suspicion window tint violated law

June 25, 2013

The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the denial of a defendant’s motion to suppress cocaine found on him after his car was stopped by police on the belief the car’s window tint did not comply with Indiana statute. The justices found the officer had reasonable suspicion that the tint was in violation of the Window Tint Statute.

In Erving Sanders v. State of Indiana, 49S02-1304-CR-242, Erving Sanders’ vehicle was pulled over by an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer because the officer believed the tinted windows were so dark to constitute a traffic infraction. The officer smelled marijuana in the car and Sanders admitted to smoking a joint. When the officer searched Sanders, he found a plastic bag with a white substance in it, which Sanders said was cocaine.

Sanders was arrested and the car was photographed. An expert testified after viewing the car that the window tint was actually legally within the statutorily defined limits. The trial court denied Sanders’ motion to dismiss, finding an officer’s good faith subjective belief of violation of a traffic law is enough to justify the initial stop, even if it’s later found the traffic law wasn’t violated. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed.

Sanders argued that because the tint objectively complied with statute, the officer’s subjective interpretation of the identity and tint didn’t justify the stop, so any evidence seized in the subsequent search is in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

“Such proof of compliance with the Window Tint Statute undoubtedly relieves the defendant of any liability for a window tint violation. However, it does not serve to vitiate the legality of the traffic stop,” Chief Justice Brent Dickson wrote. “ The officer's belief, based on the fact that he could not ‘clearly recognize or identify the occupant inside,’ that the window tint violated the Window Tint Statute, coupled with the fact that the actual tint closely borders the statutory limit, leads us to conclude that the officer had reasonable suspicion to make the initial stop.”

The justices also found this case is distinguishable from Ransom v. State, 741 N.E.2d 419, 422 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000), because the apparent infraction for which Sanders’ car was initially stopped does in fact exist in law. In Ransom, the officer pulled over a driver for an infraction that did not exist in law.

“Although the officer was ultimately mistaken in his belief that a violation occurred, the traffic stop was based upon a good faith, reasonable belief that a statutory infraction had occurred and thus we are unable to say that the traffic stop was not lawful,” Dickson wrote about Sanders’ case.

 

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