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Judges disagree on search validity

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On remand from the Supreme Court of the United States to reconsider under a recent ruling, the Indiana Court of Appeals reaffirmed the forfeiture of a woman's car following the arrest of her son for driving while suspended. One judge dissented because she believes the search of the vehicle was unreasonable in light of the recent ruling.

The case of Virginia Meister v. State of Indiana and Union City, Ind., No. 68A04-0604-CV-196, came back to the Court of Appeals after SCOTUS remanded it for consideration in light of Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. __ 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009). In Gant, the high court determined the expansive reading given to New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), by courts over the years was too broad and that Belton should only permit an officer to conduct a vehicle search when an arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of the arrest.

The Court of Appeals originally affirmed the forfeiture of Virginia Meister's car using Belton to support its decision. Meister's son, John Wymer, was arrested while driving her car with a suspended license. A police officer, who knew Wymer's license had been suspended, saw him driving and followed him into a convenience store parking lot. After confirming the license was still suspended, he approached the car and placed Wymer in handcuffs for driving with a suspended license. Wymer wasn't in the car at the time he was arrested. The officer found a hollowed out pen with powdery residue in it in his pocket and searched the car to find a pill bottle, which later tested positive for methamphetamine. Meister's car was seized as a result.

Judges Ezra Friedlander and James Kirsch acknowledged the search of the car wasn't justifiable under permissible Belton rationale, as clarified by Gant, but affirmed the search based on other reasoning. The majority concluded that an exception under Gant, as found in United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 820-821, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572 (1982), applies in the instant case. A search falls under the automobile exception when the vehicle is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband or evidence of a crime, wrote Judge Friedlander. The officer had probable cause to believe a search of Wymer's car would uncover contraband or evidence of a crime because the officer knew of Wymer's drug past and had previously found drugs on him or in his car. In addition, the car he was driving when he was arrested was clearly operational, so it was readily mobile. Therefore, there's no violation of the Fourth Amendment, wrote the judge.

Judge Patricia Riley dissented because the appellate court was supposed to examine the case in light of Gant, and neither the possibility of access nor the likelihood of discovering offense-related evidence authorized the search. At the point the officer found the pen on Wymer, he didn't place him under arrest for possession of illegal substances nor did he field test the residue; another officer later did that. Wymer was secured prior to the search of his car and was not within reaching distance of its interior, she wrote.

"Wymer was arrested for driving with a suspended license - an offense for which the officers could not expect to find evidence in the vehicle," she wrote. "Because the officers could not reasonably have believed either that Wymer could have accessed his car at the time of the search or that evidence of the offense for which he was arrested might have been found therein, the search in this case, pursuant to Gant's directives, was unreasonable."

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