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COA reverses dismissal of drug charges

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A trial court erred when it sua sponte decided to exclude evidence from a warrantless search of a defendant's car and dismiss the drug charges against him as a result of that search, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today.

In State of Indiana v. James S. Hobbs IV, No. 19A01-0904-CR-187, the state asked the appellate court to overturn the Dubois Superior Court's decision that dismissed James Hobbs' charges of possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia as Class A misdemeanors.

Police served a felony warrant on Hobbs while he was at work. Prior to serving the warrant, police saw him leave the restaurant he worked at, put something in his car, and go back inside. Hobbs refused permission to search his car, so a narcotics detection dog sniffed the outside of it. The dog smelled an illegal narcotic and inside the car police found a cooler that contained scales, rolling papers, and marijuana.

After the trial court dismissed the charges, the state filed a motion to correct error and a change of judge; those motions were denied.

The Court of Appeals analyzed the search under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. Under the federal constitution, police don't have to have a search warrant before they search a car they have probable cause to believe contains illegal drugs. A canine sweep of the outside of a car doesn't intrude upon the privacy interest under the Fourth Amendment, so probable cause isn't required to use a narcotics detection dog, wrote Judge James Kirsch.

"The narcotics detection dog's alert, on the exterior of Hobbs' vehicle, to the presence of contraband supplied the probable cause necessary for further police investigation of the contents of Hobbs' vehicle. Accordingly, the warrantless search of Hobbs' vehicle does not appear to have contravened the Fourth Amendment as interpreted by our Supreme Court," he wrote.

The appellate court relied on Litchfield v. State, 824 N.E.2d 356, 359 (Ind. 2005), Brown v. State, 653 N.E.2d 77 (Ind. 1995), and Myers v. State, 839 N.E.2d 1146, 1152 (Ind. 2005), when analyzing the search under the state's constitution. Based on those cases, the Court of Appeals concluded the warrantless search didn't violate Article 1, Section 11. The alert by the narcotics detection dog had provided a significant "degree of concern, suspicion, or knowledge that a violation had occurred," wrote Judge Kirsch quoting from Litchfield. The judges also determined the three factors of Litchfield were satisfied in the instant case.

"We conclude, after application of the Litchfield factors, that the present case is more similar to Myers, where the warrantless search was upheld, than it is to Brown, where the search was found to be in violation of the Indiana Constitution. Accordingly, the trial court erred when it determined, sua sponte, that the warrantless search violated the Indiana Constitution," Judge Kirsch wrote.

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