Supreme Court rules on police traffic stops

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The Indiana Supreme Court has held that police don't have to verify whether the description of someone driving a vehicle matches the physical description of the registered owner obtained from a license plate check.

But with not having to perform that additional verification, police have also been told by a split Supreme Court in a companion case ruling that they can't continue a traffic stop investigation if they've already observed the registered owner in question isn't the person behind the wheel.

In a unanimous decision issued Friday, justices adopted as precedent two cases from the Indiana Court of Appeals in the past decade, which specifically hold that police officers' knowledge that the registered owner of a vehicle has a suspended license is enough to constitute reasonable suspicion for initiating a traffic stop, often referred to as a Terry stop based on the U.S. Supreme Court's four-decade-old precedent.

"The safety of Indiana's roadways strongly points toward initiating a Terry stop when the police officer knows that the registered owner of a vehicle has a suspended license," Justice Frank Sullivan wrote for the court. "But this legitimate public safety concern is, of course, subject to the Fourth Amendment right to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. We believe that this right is vindicated by requiring that officers must be unaware of any evidence or circumstances which indicate that the owner is not the driver of the vehicle before initiating a Terry stop."

The Supreme Court's decision came in Thomas A. Armfield v. State of Indiana, No. 29S02-0811-CR-590.

From Hamilton Superior Court, the case involves a Carmel police officer who was conducting license plate checks in September 2005. He ran the plate of a 1992 blue GMC truck that was ahead of him, but before getting results passed the truck and wasn't able to verify the driver's identify in that time or because of tinted windows. When he learned that Thomas Armfield was the registered owner and had a lifetime suspension of driving privileges, he and another officer made the stop. They verified his identity and arrested him, resulting in a felony charge of operating a motor vehicle after forfeiture of a license for life. Armfield's efforts to suppress the stop were denied at the trial court and he was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to six years.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed that judgment last year and held the traffic stop was valid. Justices took the case to resolve a split in caselaw from the intermediate appellate court.

Adopting a two-prong test, justices ruled that an officer has reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop when the officer knows that the registered owner has a suspended license and when that officer is unaware of anything indicating the owner isn't the driver at the time. This rule doesn't require police to match physical descriptions, the court ruled, agreeing with the state that verifying those identities compromises safety by requiring police to do more to clearly observe drivers during driving.

Specifically, the justices relied on caselaw found in Kenworthy v. State, 738 N.E.2d 329 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000), and State v. Ritter, 801 N.E.2d 689 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004), both of which the Indiana Supreme Court had denied transfer. In those cases, police had made stops but not verified any descriptions prior to the stops. Justices opted against what they referred to as the first strand of caselaw, in which the Court of Appeals had decided Wilkinson v. State, 743 N.E. 2d 1267 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), which held that the stop was valid only when police could clearly see and determine the driver's identity.

Applying that analytical framework to a similar case, the justices expanded on the issue and took it a step further in Damen Holly v. State of Indiana, No. 49S02-0811-CR-591, which stemmed from the other line of caselaw. In that case, an Indianapolis officer conducting a routine patrol ran a plate check on the vehicle in front of him and found the owner had a suspended license. He initiated a stop based on that information, finding the male driver Damen Holly behind the wheel rather than the registered owner, an African-American female who was one of the two passengers inside. Holly told the officer he didn't have a driver's license but everyone in the vehicle provided other identifying information, which showed the officer that Holly's license was also suspended. Police searched the vehicle and found a small bag of marijuana belonging to Holly inside. Ultimately, Holly was found guilty of misdemeanor marijuana possession.

The Court of Appeals reversed that decision last year, following the Wilkinson line of rationale about police needing to verify identities before making a traffic stop. The officer in Holly hadn't done that, and the appellate court had found the stop wasn't valid. Justices granted the appeal and reversed in a split decision, holding that the trooper should have halted the traffic stop investigation once observing that it wasn't the registered owner - an African-American female with a suspended license - behind the wheel, but a male driver instead. Justice Robert Rucker wrote the ruling that Justices Brent Dickson and Theodore Boehm joined.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justice Frank Sullivan dissented in their own separate opinions.

"The majority's decision appears rooted in the concern that police officers would otherwise abuse their authority and engage in discriminatory enforcement of traffic laws," the chief justice wrote, noting that the initial stop was a valid one and the Indianapolis officer's request for ID was a routine stop procedure. "Absent any evidence that the minimal request would have otherwise prolonged the stop, even had Holly possessed a driver's license, I can see no evil in the request."

Justice Sullivan made similar observations, and also pointed out that caselaw from outside Indiana isn't binding and other precedent could have offered a better picture for the court to use as guidance.

"In my view, there is a consensus of authority more instructive, arising in the context of a police officer's 'community caretaking function' that stands for the proposition that the Fourth Amendment is not violated when an officer requests a driver's license to run a status check without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, provided there is an initial, valid police driver contact."


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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.