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Tinted-window stop yielding pot arrest by precedent-setting cop upheld

August 20, 2013

Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer Keith Minch is on a roll in the appellate courts.

Earlier this year, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that drug evidence resulting from Minch’s stop of a vehicle with legally tinted windows was admissible in Erving Sanders v. State of Indiana, 49S-02-1304-CR-242.

Tuesday, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court conviction of misdemeanor marijuana possession charges stemming from another tinted-window stop by Minch in Gregory Johnson v. State of Indiana,  49A02-1301-CR-28. In both cases, Minch testified that he stopped the vehicles because he believed that they might have violated the Indiana Window Tint Statute, I.C. 9-19-19-4, and that he couldn’t see through the windows clearly enough to identify the occupants.

In Johnson’s case, he was found to be driving with a suspended license, and the subsequent pat-down search turned up marijuana. Johnson testified that the tinted windows on his Dodge Caravan were factory-installed and that he shouldn’t have been stopped, but the trial court refused to suppress the evidence.

“We are precluded from accepting Johnson’s invitation to consider photographic evidence presented during trial that he argues shows the tinting on his rear window was not excessive and, in fact, was no darker than other similar Dodge Caravans. To do so at the expense of Officer Minch’s testimony of what he observed at the time of the traffic stop would constitute reweighing the evidence, which we cannot do,” Judge Michael Barnes wrote for the court.

“Even if Officer Minch was mistaken about whether the rear window of the minivan violated the Window Tint Statute, his testimony establishes that it was a good faith mistake and that there was reasonable suspicion to make the stop.”

However, the opinion was less than an endorsement of pulling over vehicles with dark windows.

"We will admit that the degree of concern, suspicion, or knowledge that Johnson was committing a traffic violation was not overwhelming," Barnes wrote. "Unlike running a red light or turning without signaling or speeding as measured by a radar gun, there is much subjectivity that goes into deciding whether a window of a moving car is too dark under the Window Tint Statute. And, again, the State does not dispute that the minivan’s windows were factory standard.

“Still, the degree of suspicion was not non-existent. We also will acknowledge that the State’s interest in enforcing the Window Tint Statute is not an overwhelmingly pressing public safety concern. … Nonetheless, there are legitimate law enforcement and safety interests in prohibiting the operation of vehicles with excessive window tinting, and police officers are entitled to enforce the statute.”

The panel also rejected Johnson’s argument that lawmakers would not have passed a statute under which drivers with factory-installed window tinting would be subject to a traffic stop on that basis alone.

“If the General Assembly believes it would be wise to re-write the Window Tint Statute in such a way as to limit police officer authority to pull over vehicles for suspected violations of that law, it could do so,” Barnes wrote. “Additionally, the primary check upon potential abuse of the Window Tint Statute as a pretext to conduct traffic stops must lie with trial courts, which are in a position to judge the credibility of police officer testimony regarding the ability to see through a particular vehicle’s window tinting.”
 

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