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Man's detainment by officer violated 4th Amendment

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Conservation officers checking to see if a fisherman had a valid license did not have reasonable suspicion to detain the man and ask to see what was inside his bag after verifying his license, the Indiana Court of Appeals held.

Indiana Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officers John Neargardner, who was in uniform, and Levi Clark were on boat patrol when they saw Stephen Alter fishing with a woman and a juvenile. They decided to see if Alter had a valid fishing license and was in compliance with state law regarding bag limits and size limits with fish. On their way to Alter’s location, Neargardner saw Alter pick up something small and put it in his bag.

When they got to Alter, they determined his fishing license was valid. While still in possession of the license, Neargardner asked if Alter had anything in his bag, to which Alter replied fishing gear. Alter let Neargardner look into the bag. Neargardner noticed a small bag inside, and he asked what was in it. Alter said “fishing gear” and asked why the officer wanted him to open the smaller bag.

Neargardner suspected it was something illegal like marijuana. Turns out, Alter had the drug in his bag, which he produced after the officer told him to “give me your marijuana.”

Alter was charged with Class D felonies possession of marijuana and possession of a controlled substance. He filed a motion to suppress, which the trial court granted.

The state claimed Neargardner’s actions didn’t constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment or Indiana Constitution, that he saw suspicious behavior and asking someone to hand over any contraband isn’t a search or seizure.

Addressing only the Fourth Amendment claim, the judges held that the circumstances in this case would lead them to agree with the trial court that a reasonable person in Alter’s position wouldn’t feel free to leave or resist Neargardner’s directives. Alter was being detained for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, so the officers needed to have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity had happened or was about to happen, wrote Judge Elaine Brown in State of Indiana v. Stephen Alter, No. 85A04-1101-CR-44.

Neargardner testified that he had a “gut feeling” that the bag had marijuana in it, and he suspected that based on Alter’s hesitancy to voluntarily reveal the contents of the smaller bag.

“Reasonable suspicion requires more than mere hunches or unparticularized suspicions, and an officer must be able to point to specific facts giving rise to reasonable suspicion of criminal activity,” wrote the judge.

The appellate court affirmed the grant of motion to suppress and also found that Indiana Code 14-22-39-3 does not allow conservation officers to detain or seize Alter in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

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  1. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  2. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  3. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  4. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

  5. Can I get this form on line,if not where can I obtain one. I am eligible.

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