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Court: Police shouldn't have made traffic stop

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An appellate decision today in a drunk-driving traffic stop case out of Fort Wayne illustrates how a lack of knowledge about a particular road’s layout can derail the prosecution of someone who may have been intoxicated behind the wheel.

The ruling comes in State of Indiana v. James H. Sitts, No. 02A03-1001-CR-34, which comes from Allen Superior Court and involves a traffic stop for suspected drunk driving in June 2008.

Officer Dennis McCann received a report about an apparent drunk driver traveling northbound on a main artery in Fort Wayne. After responding to that area he began following a southbound pickup truck that could have been the one at issue. Witnessing the vehicle cross out of the lane of traffic into another one, the officer stopped the truck and witnessed signs that Sitts was intoxicated. McCann arrested Sitts for misdemeanor drunk driving and an infraction for crossing the centerline. The local prosecution pressed that “driving left center” infraction, but the trial judge suppressed the evidence after finding the police shouldn’t have made the traffic stop based largely on the observation that the driver “weaved across the center line” once.

The state Attorney General’s Office appealed and argued the lower court was wrong because the driver had in fact crossed the centerline into the opposite lane of travel and that meant McCann had reasonable suspicion to stop Sitts based on the minor traffic violation alone.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals today affirmed the Allen Superior Court’s ruling because there was a simple problem with the state’s arguments: appellee-defendant James Sitts didn’t cross a centerline into opposing traffic, but rather he crossed the line into a lane going in the same direction.

“Sitts did not cross into the opposite lane of travel as the State asserts,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote, applying the facts to the traffic code provision detailed in Indiana Code 9-21-8-2(a). “Thus, we conclude that Officer (Dennis) McCann mistakenly believed that Sitts violated the statute.”

The judges also addressed how McCann didn’t substantiate any part of the report he’d received from dispatch, agreeing with the local judge that relying on that for the stop was unfounded based on Washington v. State, 740 N.E.2d 1241, 1246 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000). Even though police can stop drivers for swerving back and forth between lanes, that didn’t happen here and the officer only observed Sitts crossing into the other lane once.
 

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