Justices: Meth arrest of man at rental storage unit violated Fourth Amendment

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A man’s conviction and 45-year sentence on a meth charge cannot stand because the police search at a rental storage unit that led to his arrest violated his Fourth Amendment protections, a majority of the Indiana Supreme Court ruled.

Four of five justices agreed to overturn an Elkhart Superior jury’s verdict affirmed by the Indiana Court of Appeals in Kevin M. Clark v. State of Indiana, 20S05-1301-CR-10.  

Kevin Clark was arrested in August 2009 after police arrived at a 24-hour self-storage facility owned by Robert Dunlap, who complained to police that he believed a renter of one of the units might be living there. When Dunlap saw renter Dennis Collins and two other men at the site late at night, Dunlap called police and asked them to help remove Collins from the facility.

When Elkhart police arrived, they approached the three men in a manner that the majority concluded was not consensual. As the men were leaving the unit, Clark dropped a black bag he was carrying as police approached. When police persisted in questioning, he admitted having marijuana in the bag.

Police then proceeded to search his nearby car and found materials commonly used to manufacture methamphetamine. Clark ultimately was charged with and convicted of Class A felony attempted dealing in methamphetamine.

But a majority opinion written by Justice Steven David concluded Elkhart Superior Judge George W. Biddlecome wrongly denied Clark’s repeated efforts to suppress the search evidence. “The violation of Clark’s Fourth Amendment rights in this case was the direct jumping-off point to the discovery and seizure of all of the substantive evidence used to convict him,” David wrote in a 4-1, 29-page opinion from which only Justice Mark Massa dissented.

“Without repeating the analysis in full, we note that it would also apply to the same evidence when it was re-found following execution of the search warrant. Because none of that evidence should have been admitted at a trial against him, the conviction cannot stand.”

The majority characterized the encounter leading to the arrest as a “fishing expedition” that quickly spiraled from the initial purpose of the police response.

“In short, the officers encountered three men that they did not know, in a place where people are permitted to be, doing something completely in line with the expected activity at that location, at a time when people might be expected to be found there (or, given that it was a twenty-four-hour facility, at least not at a time where people are not permitted),” David wrote.

The majority noted that officers who came to the scene ordered the three men to sit, and after Clark initially refused to answer questions about the contents of the bag, he made the marijuana admission only after an officer told him he would employ a K9 that would alert to any narcotics in the bag.

“Thus, in a very short period of time what began as (at most) police support of an essentially civil matter turned quickly into a fishing expedition for narcotics employing threats of a K9 officer as the bait and hook — an expedition bordering on interrogation and wholly unsupported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion, or anything other than the officers’ apparent hunch,” David wrote.

Another problem the majority noted in the analysis: no evidence in the record specifically prohibited a renter from living in the units.

“We therefore are left with the conclusion that Clark’s admission to possessing marijuana, the marijuana and other contents of his black bag, and the contents and state of his vehicle, were all fruits of his unlawful detention. As such, all of this evidence should have been suppressed and it was error to admit it at trial,” the majority held.

In dissent, Massa said he would affirm the trial court and unanimous COA ruling affirming it.

“The Court’s thoughtful and meticulous parsing of the facts and the law, in the end, leaves one overarching question unanswered: what should the police have done?” Massa wrote.

“When called at midnight to a 24-hour storage facility in a high-crime area to help the owner evict a customer improperly living in a unit, should they have refused to come? I doubt it. Once there, should they have declined to investigate further and not accompanied the owner from the gate to the unit? Again, I think not. Most critically, once they entered the unit and saw Clark drop his bag, should they have looked the other way and departed?

“… Once they saw Clark drop his bag, I would conclude they did have such a suspicion, whatever the tone of their ensuing instructions. It was Clark’s subsequent admission, as the majority notes, that led to his arrest and all that followed — most of which this Court would approve, had it not found all that fruit poisoned,” Massa wrote.



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