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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. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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