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Majority: Trooper’s questioning violated Seatbelt Enforcement Act

July 27, 2016

A state trooper’s recollection of a woman’s name on a national drug registry does not provide an independent basis of reasonable suspicion justifying him to investigate more than a seat belt violation that initiated the traffic stop, the Indiana Court of Appeals held in a 2-1 decision. As such, the judges reversed the woman’s motion to suppress evidence that led to a drug charge.

Indiana State Police Trooper Mike Organ, while parked at a gas station in Clinton in 2014, saw a driver and passenger ride by without wearing seat belts. He stopped the car driven by Lisa Harris. When he learned her name, he recognized it from National Precursor Log Exchange reports, which he checked daily. Her license was valid and she did not have any outstanding warrants. The NPLEx indicated she had purchased pseudoephedrine nine times in the past year. This led to him having Harris get out of her car and asking her if she had recently purchased any cold medicine with pseudoephedrine. She admitted to selling the pills for $20. She consented to his search of her car, and he found what turned out to be meth in her purse.

The state charged Harris with possession of methamphetamine as a Level 6 felony. She filed a motion to suppress, which was denied.

“Harris contends the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress because Trooper Organ’s investigation above and beyond the seat belt violation contravened Indiana’s Seatbelt Enforcement Act. We agree,” Judge Margret Robb wrote for the majority in Lisa R. Harris v. State of Indiana, 83A01-1509-CR-1311. The Act bars a search or detainment of a driver or passenger solely because of a violation of the act. Circumstances must arise after the stop that independently provide the officer with reasonable suspicion of other crimes.

“In short, Trooper Organ’s recollection of Harris’s name appearing on NPLEx did not provide an independent basis of reasonable suspicion that would justify further investigation. Harris pulled over when Trooper Organ activated his emergency lights, and she produced a valid driver’s license. Trooper Organ’s subsequent questioning about Harris’s destination, her recent cold medicine purchase, and whether she would consent to a search violated the Act, and the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress the evidence gleaned from that questioning,” Robb wrote.

Judge Edward Najam dissented, writing the majority opinion failed to take into account numerous facts relied on by the trial court in denying Harris’ motion to suppress.

“Trooper Organ recognized Harris from the frequency with which her name appeared on the NPLEx, and our precedent expressly permits an officer in a seatbelt stop to take reasonable steps to investigate a driver based on the officer’s actual knowledge of the driver’s identity. The majority declares that the NPLEx is of no probative value to criminal investigations unless it demonstrates on its face illegal pseudoephedrine purchases or attempted purchases. I cannot wholly agree,” he wrote.

“[W]hile a traffic stop for a seatbelt violation cannot be turned into a fishing expedition, the Act does not vitiate an officer’s authority to investigate circumstances that become known to the stopping officer after he has initiated the traffic stop.”
 

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