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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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