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COA: Search of passenger not unconstitutional

April 23, 2014

The Indiana Court of Appeals rejected a woman’s claim that drugs found in her possession should not have been admitted at trial because a police search of her after a traffic stop violated the federal and state constitutions.

Plymouth Police Officer John Weir pulled over the car driven by Christopher Fields after it crossed the center line several times. Charla Richard was in the front passenger seat. Because Fields had a warrant outstanding, he was arrested. Weir then walked his police dog, Rex, around the car. Rex alerted at the driver’s door. Officer Bridget Hite searched Richard. When Richard raised her arm, a small tin fell out of her shirt. The tin contained methamphetamine.

The trial court denied Richard’s motions to suppress the evidence. She argued the drug evidence was inadmissible because the search of a person based on the police dog’s positive alert violated her Fourth Amendment and Article I, Section 11 rights.

The judges cited Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 124 S. Ct. 795, 157 L. Ed. 2d 769 (2003), to support that Richard’s mere presence as a passenger in the suspect vehicle is enough to establish probable cause as to her.

“Here, Rex’s positive alert provided probable cause to believe there were drugs in the vehicle. And there was no indication that Fields, and only Fields, was involved in narcotics activity. It was thus an entirely reasonable inference that any of the vehicle’s occupants had at least constructive possession of drugs,” Senior Judge Randall T. Shepard wrote in Charla P. Richard v. State of Indiana, 50A03-1307-CR-297.

There was also no violation of the Indiana Constitution, the judges held, pointing to the minimal nature of the search, the high degree of suspicion that Richard actually or constructively possessed illegal drugs, and because the extent of law enforcement needs was significant.


 

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