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COA upholds vehicle search despite noncompliance with protocol

December 7, 2015

Even though two Indianapolis police officers did not follow the department’s general order on towing and impounding vehicles after a traffic stop, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld a man’s drug convictions.

Phillip Whitley argued on interlocutory appeal that his charges of Class A felony dealing in methamphetamine, Class C felony possession of meth, Class D felony possession of a controlled substance and Class A misdemeanor driving while suspended should be dismissed because the evidence supporting those charges was discovered during an improper inventory search of the truck he was driving.

Officer Frederick Lantzer pulled over Whitley because the plate on the pickup truck was for a passenger car and was registered to another vehicle. Whitley’s driver’s license was suspended at that time. Lantzer decided to impound the truck because it was parked partially in the roadway. Officer Tim Huddleston arrived to conduct the administratively required inventory search roadside. He found a box on the front seat containing meth, a pill bottle, and other paraphernalia.

Huddleston did not detail everything he found in the car, testifying that he thought Lantzer would do that as the lead officer on the case. Huddleston did not complete any related paperwork and Lantzer listed only certain items in the probable cause affidavit but not in his personal notebook.  The trial court denied Whitley’s motion to suppress, finding that although the officers did not follow protocol in inventorying the vehicle’s contents, there was nothing to indicate that the search was anything other than a routine inventory search.

The COA agreed in Phillip Whitley v. State of Indiana, 49A02-1501-CR-50, finding Whitley’s rights under the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution were not violated.

Failure to followed established police policy does not necessarily establish that the inventory was a pretext, Judge Paul Mathias wrote. The decision to impound the truck was unquestionably reasonable and no evidence suggests that when Huddleston began the search that he was looking for evidence of a crime.

Mathias noted the state is also fortunate that the photographs taken of the interior of the truck by the evidence technician provided a photographic record of its contents.

“Once again, … we remind all law enforcement officials that substantial compliance with administrative policies is called for if they desire searches to withstand review by the courts and, more importantly, if they expect citizens to have confidence in law enforcement officials and in rule of law, in general,” he wrote.

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