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Traffic infraction not necessary for police stop

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Even though a police officer didn't see a driver commit any traffic infractions before pulling him over, the officer could stop the car because he believed the driver might have been injured or impaired, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed today.

In Lucian Potter v. State of Indiana, No. 41A04-0904-CR-217, Lucian Potter argued his traffic stop wasn't proper because the officer that pulled him over didn't see him commit any traffic violations. Potter was stopped after Greenwood Police Officer Nicholas Dine spotted him weaving within his lane of traffic and nearly hit a concrete median when turning onto a road. Potter failed the field sobriety tests and portable breath test. At trial, his motion to suppress was denied; he was convicted of Class D felony operating a vehicle while intoxicated with an enhanced sentence for being a habitual offender.

In challenging his motion to suppress, Potter argued the police officer violated his Fourth Amendment rights for pulling him over because he didn't witness Potter violating any traffic laws.

The Fourth Amendment isn't violated by a brief, investigatory stop conducted by an officer who has reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, wrote Judge Carr Darden. Dine testified that based on his training and experience, he thought the car's erratic movements were a sign of impairment or that someone was ill or injured. He wanted to make sure the driver was OK and further investigate the situation.

"These are articulable facts that support the reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was taking place, to wit: that the driver was operating the SUV while impaired from intoxication. Such circumstances warranted a brief traffic stop to 'confirm or dispel' Dine's suspicion in this regard," the judge wrote.

The appellate court also rejected Potter's argument that the Maryland case, Lewis v. State, 920 A.2d 1080 (Md. 2007), and the dissent of State v. Barrett, 837 N.E.2d 1022 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006), show that to comport with the Fourth Amendment, a traffic stop can't be initiated until an officer sees a traffic violation.

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