Justices reverse handgun conviction based on unreasonable impoundment

The Indiana Supreme Court on Friday reiterated its previous holding regarding impoundment of vehicles by police and reversed a man’s handgun conviction because the impoundment and subsequent inventory of his vehicle were unreasonable.

Lamont Wilford was pulled over by Indianapolis Metropolitan Police officer Eli Raisovich because the vehicle he was driving – his sister’s – had multiple equipment problems, including a cracked windshield and damaged rear end. Wilford parked the car in a gym parking lot.

Raisovich, after discovering Wilford was driving with a suspended license, arrested him and decided to impound the vehicle. He explained it was based on “our procedures in that situation.”
The record doesn’t show if the officer attempted to contact Wilford’s sister to retrieve her car.

During an inventory, Raisovich discovered a handgun. Wilford was later convicted of Class A misdemeanors driving while suspended with a prior suspension and carrying a handgun without a license.

He appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, finding the impoundment and inventory search satisfied Fair’s requirements because the car posed a threat to the community or itself and the testimony from the impounding officer sufficed as evidence of departmental procedures.

The Supreme Court established in Fair v. State, 627 N.E.2d 427, 433 (Ind. 1993), a strict two-prong standard for proving the decision to impound a person’s vehicle without a warrant was reasonable: the officer must believe the vehicle poses a threat to the community or is itself imperiled, and the impound must adhere to established departmental routine or regulation.

The state must satisfy both elements, and this case hinges on the officer’s testimony about police procedure.

“On this record, we know literally nothing about the substance of the ‘procedures’ the officer referenced, let alone how his actions adhered to those procedures. Without these ‘particulars,’ then, we cannot evaluate whether this impoundment was a reasonable exercise of the community-caretaking function and not merely pretext for an inventory search,” Chief Justice Loretta Rush wrote. “In sum, absent more detail, Officer Raisovich’s testimony provided inadequate evidence of established departmental routine or regulation, making impoundment un-reasonable under Fair’s second prong and rendering the handgun found during the subsequent inventory search inadmissible ‘poisoned fruit.’”

The case is Lamont Wilford v. State of Indiana, 49S02-1602-CR-110.


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