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Officer didn't conduct investigatory stop

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A trial court didn't abuse its discretion in admitting evidence that a juvenile possessed marijuana because the seizure of the drug didn't violate the teen's constitutional rights, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled.

In R.H. v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-0903-JV-218, R.H. appealed his adjudication as a delinquent child for committing what would be Class A misdemeanor possession of marijuana if committed by an adult. R.H. was in the driver's seat of a car with three others parked in front of a woman's house at night. The homeowner was suspicious of the car and called police.

Office Shawn Holmes pulled up behind the car and activated his emergency lights. When a passenger rolled down his window, smoke came out of the car. He found marijuana in the car in the front console's ashtray and two bags on the floor of the front passenger seat.

R.H. argued the seizure of the marijuana resulted from a detention that violated his rights under the federal and state constitutions and that Holmes lacked reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop. R.H. believed that the use of the emergency lights meant he was being detained and not free to leave the scene or not answer questions.

The appellate court rejected his arguments and relying on Finger v. State, 799 N.E.2d 528, 532 (Ind. 2003), determined Holmes' approach and initial contact with R.H. didn't amount to seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Holmes was responding to a report from a concerned citizen, it was late at night, the car was already stopped, and he displayed no force, wrote Judge Carr Darden for the majority. They also weren't persuaded that when Holmes activated his lights to identify himself to other motorists, that it constituted a stop of R.H.'s car.

Because Judges Darden and Margret Robb found the initial encounter didn't constitute an investigatory stop, they didn't address whether Holmes had reasonable suspicion required under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), to conduct an investigatory stop. Judge Paul Mathias, in his concurring opinion, believed there is a solid statutory argument to be made that it would have been illegal for R.H. to drive away once Holmes approached the car with his lights activated. He also noted no right-minded person feels able to disregard the police unless he or she is told they are free to do so.

"The test should not be whether a reasonable person feels free to leave, because every stop is a seizure to the extent no reasonable person ever does feel free to leave; the test should be whether the seizure has become an unreasonable intrusion," he wrote.

A better test is to consider a car stopped in the circumstances of the instant case within the meaning of Terry. The facts giving rise to R.H.'s stop are facts previously held to warrant at least a Terry stop, he wrote. Judge Mathias also believed the evidence could be admitted under the Litchfield test.

The appellate court also determined the evidence was sufficient to support R.H.'s adjudication. The drugs found in the car were in plain view of R.H. and within reach of him, so it's reasonable to infer he knew of the marijuana and had the ability to exercise dominion and control over it, wrote Judge Darden.

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