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Court finds police lacked reasonable suspicion for stop and search

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Finding that an Indianapolis police officer didn’t have reasonable suspicion or consent to stop a man acting suspiciously in a gas station parking lot, the Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed two fraud convictions involving the possession of movie DVDs that weren’t yet on the market.

In Michael Woodson v. State of Indiana, No. 49A05-1106-CR-306, the appellate court found that a “hot zone” of drug activity doesn’t alone justify stopping and questioning someone who might be acting suspiciously.

The officer was patrolling an area in Indianapolis in February 2011 when he saw a bicycle parked next to a maroon vehicle in the fast food and gas station parking lot. A man later identified as Michael Woodson existed the car, put on a backpack and began riding in the parking lot. The car left and another police patrol vehicle pulled the car over, while the original patrolling officer approached Woodson and asked him what he was doing. The officer testified that Woodson became loud and belligerent, so the officer immediately handcuffed him for safety reasons and then asked to search the backpack. Woodson consented. Inside, the officer found 34 DVDs marked with titles of movies that he recognized as still being in the theater and not yet on sale. Woodson was arrested and charged with two counts of fraud, and at a Marion County bench trial he was found guilty on both and sentenced to a partially suspended two-year sentence.

On appeal, Woodson argued the trial court had erred by denying his motion to suppress the evidence because the search and seizure wasn’t based on reasonable suspicion as required by the Indiana and U.S. constitutions. The appellate court agreed, finding that the officer didn’t have the necessary reasonable suspicion to conduct the stop and that the initial interaction wasn’t consensual. The court found that because Woodson observed the maroon car being pulled over by another police vehicle and he was immediately handcuffed and not free to leave, his consent to search the backpack wasn’t adequate.

Only the fact that the area of Indianapolis in which Woodson was arrested was considered to be a ‘hot zone’ gave Officer (Christopher) Cooper any kind of suspicion that drug-related or other illegal activity might be afoot,” Judge Mark Bailey wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. “This is not enough to amount to reasonable suspicion, and we therefore cannot conclude under the totality of the circumstances that Officer Cooper’s Terry stop was appropriate under the Fourth Amendment.”

The court reversed Woodson’s convictions, finding that admitting the DVDs into evidence was clearly prejudicial and led to testimony that otherwise would have left the state with otherwise insufficient evidence for a conviction.

 

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