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In first impression ruling, COA reverses trial court on illegal search

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The Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled that a police officer went one step too far when he opened a pill bottle he found in a man’s pocket.

In Justin M. Corwin v. State of Indiana, No. 79A04-1005-CR-296, Justin Corwin appealed his arrest for Class C felony possession of a controlled substance, claiming that police officer Kevin Flynn conducted an illegal search.

Flynn was looking for Kyle Balser, who had an active arrest warrant, on June 25, 2009. In the apartment complex where he believed Balser to be, he saw Corwin from a distance of 50 yards and believed he might be Balser.

Flynn observed Corwin acting suspiciously, and eventually climbing into the back seat of a van. The officer approached the van, and Corwin ignored repeated requests to give his name or exit the van, placing his hands in his pockets. He eventually got out, and Flynn did a pat-down search for weapons. He noticed Corwin’s clothes smelled of burnt marijuana, and he found a folding knife and a wallet during the search. The identification in the wallet indicated the man was not Balser.

When Flynn felt a circular object in Corwin’s pants pocket, he asked what it was, but Corwin didn’t respond. Flynn removed the bottle, opened it and found generic Xanax pills, for which Corwin did not have a prescription. He then arrested Corwin.

A police officer may briefly detain a person for investigatory purposes without a warrant if, based on specific and articulable facts, the officer has reasonable suspicion that criminal activity “may be afoot.” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968). But in this case, the COA held that no evidence existed to suggest Flynn knew or suspected Corwin had a history of drug crimes.

The state argued that the pill bottle’s illicit nature was immediately apparent, as the prescription label had been altered, but the trial court records do not indicate whether Flynn noticed that before or after he opened the bottle.   

The COA held that when the officer opened the pill bottle to determine the contents, he ran afoul of the limits of a Terry stop, and therefore the pills found in the bottle, and all evidence of their discovery, should have been suppressed. Accordingly, the COA reversed the trial court.

 

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  1. Your article is a good intro the recent amendments to Fed.R.Civ.P. For a much longer - though not necessarily better -- summary, counsel might want to read THE CHIEF UMPIRE IS CHANGING THE STRIKE ZONE, which I co-authored and which was just published in the January issue of THE VERDICT (the monthly publication of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association).

  2. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  3. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  4. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  5. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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