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Judges split over Fourth Amendment violation

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Two of the three judges on an Indiana Court of Appeals panel affirmed the suppression of marijuana and a pipe found on a man during a traffic stop, with the dissenting judge believing there was no infringement on the man’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Huntingburg police officer Andrew Hammock pulled over Michael Cunningham’s car because one of the two tail lamps was white – instead of red – because the red lens covering was missing. Cunningham asked to get out of his vehicle to see the tail lamp for himself, to which Hammock said he would pat him down for any weapons for officer safety. Cunningham said that was fine and got out of the car. A pat down yielded a pill bottle, which Cunningham admitted had marijuana in it. He told the officer he had a pipe in his car.

Cunningham was charged with Class A misdemeanors possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia. He filed a motion to suppress the marijuana and pipe, which the trial court granted based on its finding that the initial traffic stop was illegal.

The Indiana Court of Appeals judges agreed in State of Indiana v. Michael E. Cunningham, 19A05-1310-CR-489, that the initial traffic stop was not illegal, as law requires vehicles like Cunningham’s to have two red-lighted tail lamps. But the court split on whether the search violated Cunningham’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The majority noted there was no evidence that Cunningham was hostile or threatening when he asked to get out of the car.

“We conclude that Officer Hammock clearly did not ask Cunningham for permission to conduct a pat-down search. Instead, Officer Hammock’s testimony demonstrates that he gave an ultimatum to Cunningham: if he decided to exit the vehicle to inspect the tail lamp, ‘I would pat him down for any weapons just for officer safety issue,’” Judge Michael Barnes wrote. “Phrased in this way, Cunningham had no choice but to submit to the pat-down when he exited the vehicle, despite the absence of reasonable suspicion that he was armed and dangerous.”

But the circumstances didn’t necessitate Cunningham exiting his vehicle, Judge Elaine Brown wrote in her dissent, so he did so with full knowledge that if he did leave his car, he would be subject to a pat down search. He agreed and even told the officer he had marijuana in the pill bottle, handed it to Hammock, and informed him about the pipe in the car. Under these circumstances, she wrote there is no violation of the Fourth Amendment.
 

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