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Judge worries ruling may make bright-line rule in traffic stops

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A panel of Indiana Court of Appeals judges each wrote their own opinion on whether a police officer’s safety concerns were legitimate enough to allow the officer to search a car after a traffic stop.

Judge Paul Mathias in his dissent worried that Judge Patricia Riley’s opinion – in which the majority found the search of Cedric Lewis’ car violated state and federal constitutions – began to take the law to a bright-line rule regarding the officer safety exception to the warrant requirement in the context of a car at the side of the road.

Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Officer Romeo Joson saw Lewis speeding and committing other traffic violations. When he pulled the car over, Lewis immediately put his hands out the window and seemed nervous. After finding out he was driving on a suspended license, Joson arrested Lewis. In answering a question about drugs or weapons in the car, Lewis only said there were no drugs.

Joson went to the open driver’s side door to ask the passenger to get out of the car because he believed it would be towed. As he leaned through the open door, he saw a handgun in the center console area. Lewis was convicted of Class B felony unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon over his objections to suppress the handgun evidence.

In Cedric Lewis v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-0908-CR-736, Judge Riley focused her opinion on the officer safety exception for searching a car without a warrant and found Joson’s safety to not be an issue. If Joson was concerned for his safety, he wouldn’t have stuck his head in the driver’s side door to tell the passenger she needed to get out of the car. She wrote that she failed to see why it was necessary for the officer to lean into the vehicle to talk to the passenger.  

Judge Riley didn’t believe the holding would construe a bright-line rule that an officer could never lean into a car or reposition himself to get a better vantage point under the Fourth Amendment.

“Rather, officers may lawfully position themselves in any manner of ways outside of the vehicle as long as they do not cross into a constitutionally protected area. As soon an officer crosses into a constitutionally protected area without the benefit of a recognized exception to the Fourth Amendment, like here, he is no longer rightfully positioned and is violating the defendant’s constitutional rights,” she wrote.

She also found the state didn’t satisfy the burden that the intrusion was reasonable under the Indiana Constitution.

But Judge Mathias thought the ruling went in the direction of creating a bright-line rule. While he wishes the record was more complete in explaining why the officer leaned into the car rather than using the onboard public address system, or that Joson had been asked and fully explained why he still felt concerned for his safety if he was willing to lean into the car, Judge Mathias believed there was enough information to support introducing the gun as evidence. Joson knew there might be a weapon in the car based on Lewis’ partial answer and there was a passenger who remained in the car.

Judge James Kirsch concurred in result with Judge Riley because he felt the record failed to answer important questions regarding officer safety concerns and that the state didn’t satisfy its burden to prove that the search was justified.
 

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