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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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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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