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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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