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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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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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