ILNews

Court rules on searches after seatbelt violation

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2007
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Police officers who stop motorists for a seat belt violation need to keep in mind Indiana Code 9-19-10-3 when conducting searches and asking questions. The Court of Appeals handed down a ruling today citing the statute that says traffic stops made to determine seatbelt compliance strictly prohibits the police from determining anything else, even if other law would permit it.

Because of this, the court reversed the trial court's judgment in Gary W. Pearson v. State of Indiana . The lower court had ruled against Pearson, convicting him of possession of marijuana and methamphetamine. The appellate court also remanded for a new trial.

Officer Matt Hastings of the Chandler Police Department saw Pearson driving a vehicle without a seatbelt and stopped him. When Hastings approached the vehicle, he saw Pearson was now wearing his seatbelt. Hastings ordered Pearson out of the vehicle to conduct a pat-down search for weapons, believing Pearson was a threat to his safety because the officer knew of prior violent incidents involving Pearson. While conducting the pat down, Hastings asked if Pearson had anything on him he should be made aware of, to which Pearson replied he had marijuana in his pants pocket. Hasting retrieved the marijuana, placed Pearson in custody, and continued the search of Pearson and his vehicle. Inside a separate pair of pants, Hastings found a substance later determined to be methamphetamine. He also found Pearson was driving on a suspended license.

The trial court found Pearson guilty of possession of a methamphetamine, a Class A misdemeanor; possession of marijuana, Class A misdemeanor; and failure to use a seatbelt, a Class D infraction. Pearson moved to suppress evidence obtained during the pat-down search, claming the search was illegal because Hastings had no reasonable suspicion Pearson was armed and dangerous. The trial court denied his motion. Pearson then appealed, claiming the trial court abused its discretion in denying his motion to suppress and in overruling his objections to the admission of the evidence during trial.

In the opinion, Judge Patrick Sullivan cites the Seatbelt Enforcement Act, Indiana Code 9-19-10-3, which states a driver can be stopped because they are in non-compliance with wearing his or her seatbelt but the vehicle, its contents, the driver, or any passenger may not be inspected, searched, or detained solely because of this statute.

In Trigg v. State, it was determined an officer may conduct a search for weapons without getting a search warrant if the officer reasonably believes he or others may be in danger. In order to determine the reasonableness, due weight must be given to the specific reasonable inferences the officer is entitled to draw from facts in light of his experience, Judge Sullivan wrote.

Hastings initiated the traffic stop solely under the Seatbelt Enforcement Act and immediately ordered Pearson out of the car to search for weapons because of his knowledge of Pearson's prior violent incidents. Because of this, the court ruled Hastings' search was reasonable. Hastings was allowed to ask questions during the pat-down search, but only if they pertained to the reason why Pearson was stopped: for not wearing a seatbelt.

Citing State v. Morris, a traffic stop based solely upon the failure of the driver to wear a seatbelt does not warrant reasonable suspicion for the officer to "unilaterally expand [an] investigation and 'fish' for evidence of other possible crimes."

Keeping in mind I.C. 9-19-10-3, the court concluded Hastings was not justified in asking Pearson if he had anything on his person and was "fishing" by doing so. Therefore, the marijuana and methamphetamine found were inadmissible in court. In the final footnote of the opinion, Judge Sullivan wrote, "But, because the only evidence supporting his convictions would seem to be inadmissible, we must surmise that the State could not successfully retry him."
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  1. What is this, the Ind Supreme Court thinking that there is a separation of powers and limited enumerated powers as delegated by a dusty old document? Such eighteen century thinking, so rare and unwanted by the elites in this modern age. Dictate to us, dictate over us, the massess are chanting! George Soros agrees. Time to change with times Ind Supreme Court, says all President Snows. Rule by executive decree is the new black.

  2. I made the same argument before a commission of the Indiana Supreme Court and then to the fedeal district and federal appellate courts. Fell flat. So very glad to read that some judges still beleive that evidentiary foundations matter.

  3. KUDOS to the Indiana Supreme Court for realizing that some bureacracies need to go to the stake. Recall what RWR said: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!" NOW ... what next to this rare and inspiring chopping block? Well, the Commission on Gender and Race (but not religion!?!) is way overdue. And some other Board's could be cut with a positive for State and the reputation of the Indiana judiciary.

  4. During a visit where an informant with police wears audio and video, does the video necessary have to show hand to hand transaction of money and narcotics?

  5. I will agree with that as soon as law schools stop lying to prospective students about salaries and employment opportunities in the legal profession. There is no defense to the fraudulent numbers first year salaries they post to mislead people into going to law school.

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