Purse search violated Indiana Constitution

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

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.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Lori, you must really love wedding cake stories like this one ... happy enuf ending for you?

  2. This new language about a warning has not been discussed at previous meetings. It's not available online. Since it must be made public knowledge before the vote, does anyone know exactly what it says? Further, this proposal was held up for 5 weeks because members Carol and Lucy insisted that all terms used be defined. So now, definitions are unnecessary and have not been inserted? Beyond these requirements, what is the logic behind giving one free pass to discriminators? Is that how laws work - break it once and that's ok? Just don't do it again? Three members of Carmel's council have done just about everything they can think of to prohibit an anti-discrimination ordinance in Carmel, much to Brainard's consternation, I'm told. These three 'want to be so careful' that they have failed to do what at least 13 other communities, including Martinsville, have already done. It's not being careful. It's standing in the way of what 60% of Carmel residents want. It's hurting CArmel in thT businesses have refused to locate because the council has not gotten with the program. And now they want to give discriminatory one free shot to do so. Unacceptable. Once three members leave the council because they lost their races, the Carmel council will have unanimous approval of the ordinance as originally drafted, not with a one free shot to discriminate freebie. That happens in January 2016. Why give a freebie when all we have to do is wait 3 months and get an ordinance with teeth from Day 1? If nothing else, can you please get s copy from Carmel and post it so we can see what else has changed in the proposal?

  3. Here is an interesting 2012 law review article for any who wish to dive deeper into this subject matter: Excerpt: "Judicial interpretation of the ADA has extended public entity liability to licensing agencies in the licensure and certification of attorneys.49 State bar examiners have the authority to conduct fitness investigations for the purpose of determining whether an applicant is a direct threat to the public.50 A “direct threat” is defined as “a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by a modification of policies, practices or procedures, or by the provision of auxiliary aids or services as provided by § 35.139.”51 However, bar examiners may not utilize generalizations or stereotypes about the applicant’s disability in concluding that an applicant is a direct threat.52"

  4. We have been on the waiting list since 2009, i was notified almost 4 months ago that we were going to start receiving payments and we still have received nothing. Every time I call I'm told I just have to wait it's in the lawyers hands. Is everyone else still waiting?

  5. I hope you dont mind but to answer my question. What amendment does this case pretain to?