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Justices rule in favor of woman alleging 'warrantless intrusion' by officer

November 29, 2016

Although a police officer believed that a Hamilton County woman could have been injured after being stuck under her car, the facts surrounding the situation did not lend themselves to an emergency situation that could justify the “warrantless intrusion” of stopping the woman’s car after she drove away.

That is the opinion handed down by the Indiana Supreme Court Tuesday in Mary Osborne v. State of Indiana, 29S02-1608-CR-433. Mary Osborne was at a gas station in Fishers when she became stuck under her vehicle. Officer Jason Arnold received a call from dispatch about Osborne’s situation and drove toward the gas station to investigate, but dispatch informed him that Osborne had freed herself and driven away before he arrived.

As he was pulling into the gas station, Arnold saw Osborne’s car leaving. He began to follow her and did not see any driving infractions or criminal conduct, but still chose to initiate a traffic stop because he was “concerned that (she) potentially could have been seriously injured.”

Arnold saw no injuries on Osborne’s body, but did notice signs of intoxication. After she failed multiple sobriety tests, she was arrested and charged with Class A misdemeanor operating a vehicle while intoxicated in a manner that endangers a person and Class C misdemeanor operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration of at least 0.08.

Osborne moved to suppress the evidence, claiming that Arnold’s warrantless stop violated her federal and state constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The trial court denied that motion but the Court of Appeals agreed with her. In oral arguments before the Indiana Supreme Court last month, the state argued that Arnold’s actions were lawful because he genuinely believed that Osborne might have been injured as a result of being stuck under her car.

While the justices did not contend that Arnold’s motives weren’t pure in their Tuesday opinion, Justice Mark Massa, wrote the facts of the case “‘(do) not establish an exigency sufficient to justify (the) warrantless intrusion’ of stopping Osborne’s car.”

Massa pointed specifically to the Indiana Court of Appeals decision in Trotter v. State, 933 N.E.2d 572, 577 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010), which found that although police officers believed Trotter may have been intoxicated and passed out inside a home, the officers were not met with circumstances that would have caused a reasonable belief that Trotter was in need of emergency assistance.

Similarly, in Osborne, Massa wrote that Osborne had freed herself from the car and was driving normally, and that Arnold did not see her commit any traffic infractions or criminal activity. Those facts do not constitute an emergency that would make Arnold’s stop of Osborne permissible, he said.

“In a close case on these unique facts, we err, if at all, on protecting the privacy rights of Hoosiers against intrusion by the State,” Massa wrote. “Accordingly, we find that the State has failed to carry its burden of showing that an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment justified the stop.”

The justices also found that the stop was impermissible under Article 1 Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution and reversed the trial court’s denial of Osborne’s motion to suppress the evidence. All justices concurred.

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