Justices consider transfer of 2 cases related to traffic stops, strip searches

November 23, 2016

The justices of the Indiana Supreme Court are deciding whether to grant transfer in two cases related to the permissibility of certain police officer actions after hearing arguments on petitions to transfer Tuesday.

The state’s high court first heard arguments in the case of Lisa R. Harris v. State of Indiana, 83A01-1509-CR-01311, which began in 2014 when Indiana State Police Trooper Mike Organ stopped Lisa Harris’ car for failure to wear a seatbelt, recognized her name as a frequent purchaser of pseudoephedrine on the National Precursor Log Exchange, and subsequently questioned her and found meth in her possession.

After the trial court denied Harris’ motion to suppress, the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned that decision, writing that Organ’s investigation into Harris’ car went above and beyond the seat belt violation laid out in the Indiana Seatbelt Enforcement Act. In oral arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court, Larry Thomas, attorney for Harris, urged the justices not to grant transfer in the case and instead to let the Court of Appeals’ decision stand.

But Larry Allen, counsel for the state, told the justices that the Court of Appeals’ decision was incorrect because it held that Organ could have only questioned Harris beyond her use of a seat belt if he had probable cause. Cases such as these are fact-specific, Allen said, and the facts in this case lend themselves to at least a reasonable suspicion of possible illegal behavior.

Specifically, Allen said Harris testified that when she first saw Organ’s lights flashing on his police vehicle, she turned the corner to try to avoid him before finally pulling over. Additionally, Organ said she was acting nervously during the traffic stop. Those facts, couple with her frequent presence on the NPLEX, are enough to create reasonable suspicion, he said.

But Thomas told the court that the state was trying to derive “reasonable suspicion” from a situation where it didn’t naturally exist. Other than failing to fasten her seat belt, Harris did nothing that would have caused Organ to believe she was involved in illegal activity, Thomas said. Although her name did appear on the NPLEX nine times within a year, each time the amount she had purchased was within the legal limit.

But Chief Justice Loretta Rush pointed out that Indiana law does allow reasonable suspicion to extend from legal activities in certain circumstances. Thomas agreed, but also said there had to be additional factors besides the legal activity to cause the reasonable suspicion.

Rush then returned to the state’s argument and said Harris’ behaviors, including her desire to avoid the officer and her nervousness, could be seen as additional factors that could lead to reasonable suspicion.  But Thomas said in stressful situations such as a traffic stop, people behave oddly. And in this particular case, Organ’s actions were extending beyond the normal protocol, which added to Harris’ stress.

The court also heard arguments on petition to transfer in the case of State of Indiana v. Dejon Pitchford, 49A04-1512-CR-02173, in which Dejon Pitchford was arrested on a preliminary charge of misdemeanor battery, strip searched and then subsequently charged with felony drug possession after officers found narcotics hidden in his body. Pitchford moved to suppress the evidence, and the trial court and Court of Appeals affirmed.

Patricia McMath, counsel for Pitchford, told the high court that it should not great transfer in the case because of its decision in Edwards v. State, 759 N.E.2d 626 (Ind. 2001). That case found that warrantless strip searches of misdemeanor arrestees such as Pitchford are impermissible absent reasonable suspicion that an arrestee is concealing weapons or contraband. Based on that standard, McMath said officers did not have the right to conduct a strip search on Pitchford.

But Eric Babbs, counsel for the state, told the justices that Edwards had been undermined by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, which held that strip searches conducted on inmates entering the general population of a prison do not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Babbs said the state high court should take a fresh look at the issue of strip searches in light of developments in U.S. law.


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