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Justices split in traffic-stop decision

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The Indiana Supreme Court justices were split in their decision issued Dec. 31 on whether a defendant's state and federal constitutional rights were violated when police questioned him about weapons and drugs after he was pulled over for a traffic violation.

The majority ruled in State of Indiana v. Raymond Washington, Jr., No. 02S03-0804-CR-191, that Raymond Washington's Fourth Amendment and Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution rights weren't violated when police discovered marijuana on him after he was stopped. Police saw Washington riding a moped that crossed the centerline and he was not wearing a helmet or goggles, which is required for riders younger than 18. The officer thought Washington was underage and pulled him over. After he discovered he was over 18, he asked whether Washington had any guns, drugs, or anything that could harm the officer. Washington admitted he had marijuana.

At trial, Washington filed a motion to suppress, claiming violations of the Fourth Amendment and Section 1, Article 11 of the Indiana Constitution. The trial court granted the motion, and the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed.

The majority overturned the trial court, finding the officer's conduct didn't violate the federal or state constitutions. The issue of whether police questions unrelated to the initial reason for a detention may constitute an unlawful seizure hasn't been specifically addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Citing cases from the U.S. Supreme Court and various Circuit courts, Indiana's justices found the brief questioning of Washington as to whether he had any drugs, weapons, or anything that could harm the officer wasn't itself a search and seizure and wasn't prohibited by the Fourth Amendment, wrote Justice Brent Dickson. The officer's question didn't cause an excessive delay, and Washington wasn't obligated to answer the questions.

Applying the Litchfield factors to the instant case, the majority found the officer had a reasonable basis for stopping Washington, the degree of police intrusion was slight, and the officer's conduct in making the stop was appropriate to enforce traffic laws. In addition, the question about drugs and weapons was consistent with the officer's concern for his safety and his responsibility to deter crime, intercept criminal activity, and arrest perpetrators, wrote Justice Dickson. As a result, Washington's rights under the Indiana Constitution weren't violated.

Justices Theodore Boehm and Robert Rucker dissented in separate opinions. Justice Boehm didn't concur with the majority's Fourth Amendment analysis but agreed that the amendment doesn't bar brief questioning of a person subjected to a Terry stop. However, he wrote the Indiana Constitution requires reasonable suspicion of a separate offense before an officer conducting a traffic stop can broaden the questioning to other subjects beyond those dealing with the traffic stop and officer safety.

Justice Rucker dissented from the majority finding Washington's rights were violated under the federal and state constitutions. A police officer asking a stopped motorist about the presence of drugs with no basis whatsoever to believe they are present, is patently unreasonable, he wrote. Also, once the officer realized Washington was over 18, his traffic stop was done; just because someone is nervous, it doesn't alone constitute reasonable suspicion, he wrote.

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