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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. KUDOS to the Indiana Supreme Court for realizing that some bureacracies need to go to the stake. Recall what RWR said: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!" NOW ... what next to this rare and inspiring chopping block? Well, the Commission on Gender and Race (but not religion!?!) is way overdue. And some other Board's could be cut with a positive for State and the reputation of the Indiana judiciary.

  2. During a visit where an informant with police wears audio and video, does the video necessary have to show hand to hand transaction of money and narcotics?

  3. I will agree with that as soon as law schools stop lying to prospective students about salaries and employment opportunities in the legal profession. There is no defense to the fraudulent numbers first year salaries they post to mislead people into going to law school.

  4. The sad thing is that no fish were thrown overboard The "greenhorn" who had never fished before those 5 days was interrogated for over 4 hours by 5 officers until his statement was illicited, "I don't want to go to prison....." The truth is that these fish were measured frozen off shore and thawed on shore. The FWC (state) officer did not know fish shrink, so the only reason that these fish could be bigger was a swap. There is no difference between a 19 1/2 fish or 19 3/4 fish, short fish is short fish, the ticket was written. In addition the FWC officer testified at trial, he does not measure fish in accordance with federal law. There was a document prepared by the FWC expert that said yes, fish shrink and if these had been measured correctly they averaged over 20 inches (offshore frozen). This was a smoke and mirror prosecution.

  5. I love this, Dave! Many congrats to you! We've come a long way from studying for the bar together! :)

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