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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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