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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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  2. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  3. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  4. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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