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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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  1. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  2. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  3. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  4. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  5. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

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