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Judges find search of car for gun not justified

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A panel of Indiana Court of Appeals judges reversed the denial of a defendant's motion to suppress evidence of drugs found in his car during a search, but one judge believed the man's cooperation and respect toward the police officer shouldn't factor into their decision making.

In Melvin Washington v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-0907-CV-649, Melvin Washington brought an interlocutory appeal of the denial to suppress evidence. An Indianapolis Metropolitan Police officer pulled over Washington's car because of a broken headlight. Washington was cooperative with the officer and admitted he had a gun under his front seat when asked if he had any weapons. Washington had a valid permit to carry the gun. While looking under the seat to get the gun, the officer saw a bag of marijuana.

He was charged with Class A misdemeanor possession of marijuana. The trial court denied his motion to suppress the drug evidence. Washington argued that the search violated his rights under the state and federal constitutions.

The appellate judges unanimously agreed that Washington's motion to suppress should have been granted, but came to their conclusion through different analyses. Judges Michael Kirsch and Carr Darden relied on Malone v. State, 882 N.E.2d 784, 786 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008), to conclude that in the absence of an articulable basis that either there was a legitimate concern for officer safety or a belief that a crime had been or was being committed, searching Washington's car wasn't justified. The arresting officer testified he wasn't specifically concerned for his safety during the stop and Washington made no furtive movements, was respectful, and cooperated with the officer.

Judge Melissa May concurred in a separate opinion and wrote that the motion to suppress should have been granted based on Arizona v. Gant, U.S. 129 S. Ct. 1710, 1723-24 (2009). Even though Gant involved an arrest instead of a traffic stop, Washington was also removed from his car and handcuffed and his statement that there was a gun under his seat couldn't justify a search of the car based on concern for officer safety.

"...Gant created a rule that relieves all of us from the burden of determining whether subjective facts (such as cooperation, respectfulness, and furtive movements) create 'an articulable basis' that a search is necessary for officer safety," she wrote. "...It seems to me, the rule articulated in Gant simultaneously increases protection for two important interests: the safety of our police officers and the constitutional rights of our citizens. As we all too frequently must choose between competing interests when deciding cases, I believe we ought to take full advantage of this opportunity."

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  1. Mr. Levin says that the BMV engaged in misconduct--that the BMV (or, rather, someone in the BMV) knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged fees but did nothing to correct the situation. Such misconduct, whether engaged in by one individual or by a group, is called theft (defined as knowingly or intentionally exerting unauthorized control over the property of another person with the intent to deprive the other person of the property's value or use). Theft is a crime in Indiana (as it still is in most of the civilized world). One wonders, then, why there have been no criminal prosecutions of BMV officials for this theft? Government misconduct doesn't occur in a vacuum. An individual who works for or oversees a government agency is responsible for the misconduct. In this instance, somebody (or somebodies) with the BMV, at some time, knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged. What's more, this person (or these people), even after having the error of their ways pointed out to them, did nothing to fix the problem. Instead, the overcharges continued. Thus, the taxpayers of Indiana are also on the hook for the millions of dollars in attorneys fees (for both sides; the BMV didn't see fit to avail itself of the services of a lawyer employed by the state government) that had to be spent in order to finally convince the BMV that stealing money from Indiana motorists was a bad thing. Given that the BMV official(s) responsible for this crime continued their misconduct, covered it up, and never did anything until the agency reached an agreeable settlement, it seems the statute of limitations for prosecuting these folks has not yet run. I hope our Attorney General is paying attention to this fiasco and is seriously considering prosecution. Indiana, the state that works . . . for thieves.

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