COA reverses conviction in trash-search case

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2007
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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a conviction of possession of marijuana with intent to deal, citing an Indiana Supreme Court case that prohibits introducing evidence at trial that was obtained following a police search of trash. The court also ruled the good faith exception does not apply.

In Ralph Belvedere v. State of Indiana, 48A05-0611-CR-669, Belvedere appealed his conviction of possession of marijuana with intent to deal and maintaining a common nuisance, arguing the Indiana Supreme Court decision in Litchfield v. State, 824 N.E.2d 356 (Ind. 2005) should be retroactive and apply to his case. Belvedere was arrested after Anderson Detective Kevin Earley, based on a tip, searched Belvedere's trash for evidence of marijuana. After finding seeds, stems, and a small amount of marijuana, Earley requested a search warrant of Belvedere's house. When marijuana was found during the search, he arrested Belvedere.

During his trial, the court denied Belvedere's motion to suppress the evidence police took from his trash that prompted the search warrant. The trial court sentenced Belvedere to six years probation.

Litchfield was decided in March 2005, almost a year after Earley searched Belvedere's trash. Judge Edward Najam wrote in the opinion that Litchfield applies to all cases that were pending on direct review or not yet final at the time Litchfield was decided; Belvedere's case was not yet decided as he was convicted in July 2006. For Earley to conduct a lawful search, he needed to have an "articulable individualized suspicion," but his search was based exclusively on information he received from a source. The information the source had was general information about Belvedere's race, age, and residence, but many people could know that information. Earley's search violated Belvedere's rights under the Indiana Constitution, and all evidence from that search must be suppressed unless an exception to the exclusionary rule can apply, wrote Judge Najam.

If Earley got the evidence from Belvedere's trash out of good faith, then it may be admissible. Any application of the good faith doctrine must take into account the constitutional standards from Litchfield. The majority agreed the good faith exception cannot be applied to this case, and many others, because it would avoid application of a newly announced rule of constitutional law, wrote Judge Najam.

In Indiana, the good faith exception can be applied if the evidence was obtained pursuant to "a state statute, judicial precedent, or court rule that is later declared unconstitutional or otherwise invalidated." Applying the good faith statute to Belvedere would violate his rights under the Indiana Constitution. To apply the good faith statue here would negate the Indiana Supreme Court ruling in Litchfield and require the court to ignore the retroactivity of Litchfield, the judge wrote.

Judge Cale Bradford dissented in a separate opinion, writing he believes the good faith exception applies to this case. The trash search was legal when it was performed, wrote Judge Bradford. He cited Michigan v. DeFillippo, 443 U.S. 31 (1979), in which the Supreme Court noted that evidence found at the time a person was arrested after a lawful arrest and search should not be suppressed.

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