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Officer's questions went beyond seat belt act

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The inquiry by a police officer to a driver stopped for a seat belt violation about the "large, unusual bulge" in his pants went beyond the state's Seatbelt Enforcement Act, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

A police officer stopped Robert Richardson for driving his truck while not wearing a seat belt. The officer had stopped Richardson before and never had any problems with him. After stopping him, she noticed a large, strangely shaped bulge in his pants which was his handgun. He produced a tattered gun permit, but the expiration date wasn't legible. Based on the issue date, however, the permit should have still been valid. The officer radioed headquarters to do a criminal check on Richardson, but there was a discrepancy on whether he had been arrested for misdemeanors or felonies in the past. The officer tried to arrest him for having a gun with a prior felony conviction, but Richardson struggled. After subduing him, the officer found cocaine in his underwear.

He was charged with felony possession and dealing in cocaine, as well as felony possession of cocaine and a firearm. He also was charged with misdemeanor resisting law enforcement, and battery on a law enforcement officer. The trial court granted Richardson's motion to suppress the evidence.

On appeal, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, finding the officer's questions and actions were reasonable under the act based on the totality of the circumstances and concern for safety.

But in State of Indiana v. Robert Richardson, No. 49S02-0910-CR-428, the justices unanimously agreed with the trial court that the officer's actions weren't reasonable under the Seatbelt Enforcement Act. Under the act, a car, the contents of the car, or the driver or passengers may not be inspected, searched, or detained only because they violated the act. If circumstances warrant, an officer may make a further investigation if she believes illegal activity is going on, but the state must prove that the intrusion was reasonable.

The officer who stopped Richardson "crossed a line" because Richardson was cooperative, admitted he wasn't wearing his seat belt, informed her of his gun, and had a valid permit. The fact Richardson had a valid gun permit should have ended any further questioning by the officer, wrote Justice Frank Sullivan.

"There will, of course, be circumstances where something more than an 'unusual bulge' will be visible, or other conditions that provide a police officer with the requisite reasonable suspicion to conduct further inquiry. This is not one of them," he continued.

The Supreme Court remanded for further proceedings on whether Richardson's conduct created probable cause to arrest him for forcibly resisting arrest and battery upon a law enforcement officer. The justices declined to rule on that issue because of an insufficient record as to whether his resisting law enforcement and battery charges were severable offenses independent of the seat belt search that warrant prosecution.

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  • still don't get it.
    Man arrested for not providing ID during seat belt stop. Mayor and Police Dept defend officer's illegal actions. Man files suit.

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  1. I just wanted to point out that Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, Senator Feinstein, former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and former attorney general John Ashcroft are responsible for this rubbish. We need to keep a eye on these corrupt, arrogant, and incompetent fools.

  2. Well I guess our politicians have decided to give these idiot federal prosecutors unlimited power. Now if I guy bounces a fifty-dollar check, the U.S. attorney can intentionally wait for twenty-five years or so and have the check swabbed for DNA and file charges. These power hungry federal prosecutors now have unlimited power to mess with people. we can thank Wisconsin's Jim Sensenbrenner and Diane Feinstein, John Achcroft and Bill Frist for this one. Way to go, idiots.

  3. I wonder if the USSR had electronic voting machines that changed the ballot after it was cast? Oh well, at least we have a free media serving as vicious watchdog and exposing all of the rot in the system! (Insert rimshot)

  4. Jose, you are assuming those in power do not wish to be totalitarian. My experience has convinced me otherwise. Constitutionalists are nearly as rare as hens teeth among the powerbrokers "managing" us for The Glorious State. Oh, and your point is dead on, el correcta mundo. Keep the Founders’ (1791 & 1851) vision alive, my friend, even if most all others, and especially the ruling junta, chase only power and money (i.e. mammon)

  5. Hypocrisy in high places, absolute immunity handed out like Halloween treats (it is the stuff of which tyranny is made) and the belief that government agents are above the constitutions and cannot be held responsible for mere citizen is killing, perhaps has killed, The Republic. And yet those same power drunk statists just reel on down the hallway toward bureaucratic fascism.

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