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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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