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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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