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Majority: warrantless car search OK under automobile exception

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The Fourth Amendment doesn’t prohibit a warrantless search of an operational car found in a public place if police have probable cause to believe the car contains evidence of a crime, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In State of Indiana v. James S. Hobbs, IV, No. 19S01-1001-CR-10, police went to James Hobbs’ place of work to arrest him on a felony search warrant. Before they could do so, they saw him leave the Pizza Hut where he worked, put something in his car and go back inside. They arrested him in the restaurant. A drug dog was used after Hobbs refused to allow police to search his car. The dog alerted to illegal narcotics and police found marijuana and other paraphernalia.

The trial court ruled the dog’s alert provided probable cause to get a search warrant but since police didn’t get one, the evidence was illegally seized. The state appealed the dismissal of marijuana and paraphernalia possession charges against Hobbs for lack of probable cause. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed because the dog sniff provided probable cause to support the warrantless search.

The justices found the “search incident to arrest” exception didn’t apply, but the “automobile exception” did, allowing officers to search the car without a warrant. Hobbs’ car was operational and in the parking area of the restaurant, so it fell under the automobile exception. The officers’ own observations of Hobbs opening the car and putting something inside gave them probable cause to believe that Hobbs owned whatever was inside the car, wrote Justice Theodore Boehm for the majority.

In addition, it’s well settled that a dog sniff search isn’t protected by the Fourth Amendment. It provided probable cause the car contained evidence of a crime – illegal drugs – so the search didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment. It also didn’t violate Article I, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. The police action here was reasonable and there was no disruption of Hobbs’ normal activities. At the time the car was searched, he was already under arrest for a different crime and would remain in custody whether or not the search happened.

Justices Boehm, Brent Dickson, and Chief Justice Randall Shepard voted to reverse the trial court. Justices Frank Sullivan and Robert Rucker dissented because they didn’t find the automobile exception allowed police to search the car without a warrant. Justice Sullivan wrote that he believed the majority interpreted the exception too narrowly.

“… in all of the cases where the automobile exception to the warrant requirement has been held available, the vehicle in question has been not only readily mobile and operational but also in close proximity to the suspect at the time of initial contact with the police,” he wrote. “Defendant’s lack of proximity to the automobile at the time of arrest – he was inside his place of employment and the car was parked outside in the lot – should render the automobile exception unavailable.”
 

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