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COA reverses conviction based on unreasonable police search

February 3, 2015

A police officer had no reasonable suspicion to believe that a container found in a man’s pocket during an arrest held any illegal substances, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday. As such, it reversed his Class D felony possession of schedule III controlled substance conviction, ruling it violated the Indiana Constitution.

Antonio Garcia was pulled over by an Indianapolis police officer for driving at dusk without headlights on and not signaling while moving from the travel lane. Garcia was cooperative with the officer. He did not have a valid driver’s license, so the officer arrested him for Class C misdemeanor driving without a license. During a pat-down search of Garcia, the officer found a small metallic cylinder in his pants. The officer believed the container could have legal or illegal pills in it. He opened it and discovered a hydrocodone/acetaminophen pill, for which Garcia did not have a valid prescription with him or in his car.

At his trial, Garcia provided evidence that a recently deceased aunt who lived with his family had a valid prescription for the pill and he had placed it in the cylinder so his 9-year-old son would not find it.

Garcia appealed his possession conviction in Antonio Garcia v. State of Indiana, 49A05-1402-CR-61, claiming the evidence found in the container was inadmissible because opening it was unreasonable under Article I, Section 11 of the state constitution. The appeals court agreed and reversed the conviction.

The judges looked at the three factors outlined in Litchfield v. State, 824 N.E.2d 356, 359 (Ind. 2005) – the degree of concern, suspicion or knowledge that a violation has occurred; the degree of intrusion the method of the search or seizure imposes on the citizen’s ordinary activities; and the extent of law enforcement needs. While the officer had probable cause to arrest Garcia for driving without a license, there is no evidence that the officer had any concern or suspicion that the container held anything that threatened his or the public’s safety, Judge Terry Crone wrote. There was also no reasonable suspicion that the cylinder contained any illegal substances.

 

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