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SCOTUS urged to not take Indiana case

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The Indiana Attorney General's Office wants the nation's top jurists to reject a Hoosier case posing Fourth Amendment questions about police searches, valid search warrants, and probable cause.

In a 33-page brief filed late Monday, the AG's office contends the Indiana Supreme Court was correct in deciding last summer that police can seize evidence not identified in an initial search warrant when those items of criminality are found on the scene of a valid search dictated by the first warrant.

The brief comes in response to a January petition for certiorari in Willie Eaton v. State of Indiana, No. 08-8153, which stems from a state decision issued June 30, 2008. That ruling in Eaton v. State, 889 N.E.2d 297 (Ind. 2008), affirmed a judgment from Wayne Circuit Judge David Kolger and held Eaton's convictions for cocaine dealing and marijuana possession should stand because an initial search warrant had sufficient probable cause.

Dating to May 2005, the case involves an Indiana State Police move to stop an interstate drug-trafficking conspiracy. Eaton went to a Richmond muffler store to meet with Edgar Gonzalez, who earlier in the day police stopped for speeding and caught with cocaine. A trooper rode with Gonzalez to the destination and planted a recording device in the vehicle, and then waited to enter the muffler store until after Eaton arrived. Police obtained a warrant to search Eaton's home based on a statement from the officer who said drug traffickers commonly kept money and records regarding drug trades on cell phones, computers, and other items at home.

During the search for records, police saw several items in the home - including cocaine - that caused them to get another warrant allowing for police to seize those additional items and eventually leading to the convictions.

On direct appeal, four justices concluded that a police officer may seize evidence not identified in a search warrant "when he inadvertently discovers items of readily apparent criminality while rightfully occupying a particular location." But Justice Robert D. Rucker dissented, fearing that the majority's logic in approving that search warrant would invite more government searches and that could violate both the U.S. and Indiana constitutions.

Hoping to overturn that decision, Eaton's pro bono counsel F. Thomas Schornhorst, a professor emeritus at Indiana University Maurer School of Law - Bloomington, filed a petition Jan. 12 asking the high court to accept jurisdiction in a case posing important and recurring Fourth Amendment questions on broadly worded search warrants.

In its response brief, the attorney general's office poses the question: "When police arrest a suspected drug trafficker at the scene of a four-kilo transaction, is it reasonable for them to infer, for purposes of obtaining a search warrant, that the suspect likely conceals documentary and other evidence of his drug trade at home?"

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