Justices: Officer could open container found after pat-down search

A police officer did not commit an unreasonable search when he opened a pill container found following a pat-down search after a man was lawfully placed under arrest for driving without a valid license. The Indiana Supreme Court upheld the search under the state constitution.

An Indianapolis police officer made a routine traffic stop of Antonio Garcia’s car for driving without his lights on. The officer discovered Garcia only had a foreign identification card and placed him under arrest. Before transporting him, the officer conducted a quick pat-down search, in which he discovered a pill container in Garcia’s pocket. He opened it and found one narcotic pill. When it was discovered Garcia did not have a prescription for the pill, he was charged with possession of a schedule III controlled substance as a Class D felony. He was convicted on the charge, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

Garcia did not dispute that the search of his person was permissible as a search incident to his arrest, but contested the scope. While the pill container found could be seized, he claimed that the officer needed a warrant or reasonable suspicion of illegal activity to open the container.

“After consideration of the three Litchfield factors and federal precedent on this very issue, we disagree. In the present case, opening the container found on Garcia’s person during the course of a search incident to a valid arrest was reasonable under the Indiana Constitution,” Justice Steven David wrote.

David also cited United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218 (1973), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held the authority to search incident to arrest does not depend “upon what a court may later decide was the probability in a particular arrest situation that weapons or evidence would in fact be found upon the person of the suspect.”

In Robinson, police conducted a traffic stop and lawfully arrested the driver for operating a motor vehicle after having his license revoked. During a pat-down search of the driver, the officer felt an object in a coat pocket, which was a cigarette pack. The officer opened the packet and discovered what was later determined to be heroin.

“Although the federal interpretation of reasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment is not binding upon this Court’s reasonableness analysis under Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution, in the present situation, we reach the same conclusion. Under Article 1, Section 11, opening a container found on the person of an arrestee in the course of a search incident to valid arrest will not automatically be deemed unreasonable. In the present case, the search of the container found on Garcia’s person during the course of a pat-down search was reasonable under Article 1, Section 11,” David wrote.

Justice Robert Rucker concurred in result only in Antonio Garcia v. State of Indiana, 49S05-1505-CR-335.

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