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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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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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