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7th Circuit affirms denial of motion to suppress search of car

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the denial of an automobile passenger’s motion to suppress evidence found in the car during a traffic stop, which led to his eventual pleading guilty to a heroin offense. The judges found no error by the District judge in crediting the testimony of the police officer who pulled the vehicle over because he believed the speed it was traveling and distance to the car in front of it violated Indiana law.

John Peters III was the passenger in a maroon Toyota Scion that was traveling closely behind a white GMC Denali. A Greenfield police officer initiated a traffic stop of the Denali, with Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Nick Ernstes initiating a stop of the Scion. Ernstes estimated the Scion was between 50 and 75 feet behind the Denali and traveling around 60 mph. He believed the combination of this high speed and short distance allowed less than two seconds of breaking time between the vehicles, and thus violated I.C. 9-21-8-14 by following too closely.

Ernstes smelled burnt marijuana when Peters rolled his window down and saw what he believed to be marijuana on Peters’ clothing. The deputy decided to search the car and found a marijuana stem in the car as well as a drill with a sticky substance on it. That substance matched that found on the screws of a panel concealing a kilogram of heroin in the Denali.

Peters moved to suppress the evidence found during the traffic stop, but later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute heroin. The motion was denied.

The 7th Circuit concluded that Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson did not err in concluding that probable cause existed to believe that a driver followed another too closely under Indiana law when fewer than two seconds of breaking time separated the vehicles. Ernstes testified that he used the two-second rule described in the Indiana Driver’s Manual in determining a safe following distance regarding how long it takes for a car to break depending on its speed.

“[T]he district court committed no error in crediting the testimony of an experienced police officer that after observing two cars traveling in tandem for a period of time, he credibly believed that the trailing car was approximately seventy-five feet behind the lead car at a speed of approximately sixty miles per hour. If an officer knowing these facts could reasonably conclude that this combination of speed and distance violated Indiana law, that is all that is necessary to support probable cause,” Judge Ilana Rovner wrote in United States of America v. John A. Peters III, 12-3830.

The judges also upheld the search, noting they have previously held that a police officer who smells marijuana coming from a car has probable cause to search that car.
 

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