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COA: Police didn't need to search car after stop

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a man's unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon conviction, ruling the warrantless search of the car the man was driving violated his federal and state constitutional rights.

In light of the recent United States Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 129 S. Ct. 170, 1719 (2009), the appellate court here reversed Timothy Hathaway's conviction because there was no reasonable basis for the arresting officer to search the car following the traffic stop. Hathaway was pulled over after a police officer saw him make a right turn without properly signaling and for having dark-tinted windows. Hathaway was originally arrested for driving while suspended with a prior judgment and told officers the car was registered to his sister. Both he and his passenger cooperated with police.

The police officer searched the car as part of a search incident to arrest and an inventory search prior to towing the vehicle. He found a gun under the driver's seat, and Hathaway admitted the gun was his. Hathaway's sister arrived at the scene and was allowed to drive her car home.

Hathaway was only charged with unlawful possession and not any traffic infractions or driving with a suspended license. He filed a motion to suppress the handgun, which was denied.

In Timothy Hathaway v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-0807-CR-568, the appellate court found Gant to be similar to the instant case. Gant was arrested for driving while suspended and police found cocaine in his car. The U.S. Supreme Court held in cases where the recent occupant of a car is arrested for a traffic violation, there isn't a reasonable basis to believe the car contains relevant evidence.

Under the Indiana Constitution, the burden is on the state to show the search was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances, wrote Senior Judge Betty Barteau. There weren't any facts in this case to show the police officer needed to search Hathaway's car to find or preserve evidence of driving with a suspended license. Everyone cooperated and the officer didn't testify he feared for his safety during the stop. Based on the facts of the case, the search was unreasonable under the Indiana Constitution, she wrote.

The appellate court reversed Hathaway's conviction and sentence and remanded for it to be vacated.

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