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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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