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Purse search violated Indiana Constitution

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A majority of Indiana Court of Appeals judges reversed a woman's conviction of possession of cocaine because the concern for the safety of police officers doesn't justify the warrantless search of every purse that is stretched in such a way it appears it could be holding a gun.

In Tamica Webster v. State, No. 71A03-0902-CR-78, the judges reviewed Tamica Webster's case for violations of the Indiana Constitution and Judges Michael Barnes and Melissa May determined based on Litchfield v. State, 824 N.E.2d 356, 359 (Ind. 2005), the cocaine found in her purse shouldn't have been admitted into evidence.

Webster's boyfriend was driving her car when they were pulled over. The police officer allowed Webster to get out of the car near the gas station where she worked. She stood across a busy, four-lane street nearly 75 feet away watching the officer conduct the stop.

The officer asked her to return to the car after learning the vehicle registration may be in Webster's purse. She came back carrying her large, flexible cloth purse in both hands; the officer thought her purse was stretched in such a manner that it could have a gun in it.

After telling her repeatedly not to put her hands in her purse, Webster clutched it and turned away from the officer. He handcuffed her and searched the purse, where he found cocaine.

The degree of concern that Webster had violated the law was low, wrote Judge Barnes. The police officer asked Webster to come back to the traffic stop because he thought she had the vehicle registration, not because of suspicious criminal activity. Also, purses can contain many things that can make them stretched out and his concern she had a gun was based on mere speculation.

The degree of intrusion was high because she complied with the officer's request to return to the traffic stop, which imposed on her liberty. When he took her to the ground, handcuffed her, and searched her purse without a warrant, that was a severe intrusion on her ordinary activity, the judge continued.

"As for the extent of law enforcement need, we fully recognize and agree with the need of law enforcement officers to protect themselves from armed suspects," he wrote. "However, we cannot conclude that the concern for officer safety justifies the warrantless search of every purse that is stretched in a manner that suggests it could conceivably contain a gun."

The majority also ruled that the attenuation doctrine doesn't apply in this case. Even if Webster's clutching her purse and turning her body amounted to the crime of resisting law enforcement, her actions weren't so sufficiently attenuated to dissipate any taint of the unconstitutional search.

Chief Judge John Baker dissented, believing the officer's concern that Webster was carrying a gun wasn't based on mere speculation. When considering all the circumstances in this case - she wouldn't let go of her purse, she pulled away, and the purse's bulge - the officer's level of suspicion could have increased. The officer had reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot, he wrote, and although the officer wasn't certain Webster had a gun, he didn't need to be certain. Other than searching her purse, he had no other way of knowing whether there was a gun in it, wrote the chief judge.

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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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