COA reverses drug convictions for lack of police inventory regulation

The Indiana Court of Appeals vacated a Putnam County man’s drug conviction Tuesday after finding that police officers were not following proper protocol when they searched the man’s vehicle.

After noticing that the vehicle Otis Sams was driving did not have working taillights, Greencastle Police Department officers Christopher Jones and Justin Tate pulled Sams over and asked for his license and registration. However, Sams’ license had been suspended, so he produced the registration for the vehicle, which was a family member’s truck, and a state-issued identification card.

After running Sams’ information and discovering that he was not licensed to drive, Jones decided that the slick road conditions required Sams’ vehicle to be impounded and towed. They also issued a misdemeanor summons to Sams, rather than arresting him, and Sams left the scene to wait for a ride home.

Jones and a third officer who had arrived, Kyle Lee, began to inventory to contents of the truck and discovered 25 grams of methamphetamine inside a hamburger box in the truck, so Sams was arrested and charged with Class A misdemeanor driving while license suspended and Level 4 felony possession of methamphetamine. He moved to suppress the meth evidence, but the Putnam Circuit Court denied his motion and allowed the meth to be admitted as evidence over his objection.

After his conviction on both counts, Sams appealed in Otis Sams, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 67A01-1604-CR-814, arguing that the evidence was the inadmissible fruit of an unlawful search under the Fourth Amendment. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed in a Tuesday opinion, with Judge Paul Mathias writing that the search of the fast-food bag and box that revealed the meth was not sufficiently regulated.

At the time of Sams’ arrest, Greencastle Police had a written policy on impounding vehicles that held, “When the driver/owner of a vehicle is arrested, and if the vehicle is subject to a lawful impound, the arresting officer will make an inventory of the vehicle for valuables,” including all personal property and vehicle accessories. However, Jones testified that he was trained to interpret the policy to mean only items perceived to be of liability value should be included on the inventory.

“The written policy thus conflicts both with itself and with the unwritten policy,” Mathias wrote for the unanimous panel. “We suspect that the written policy exists for the sake of reviewing courts and the unwritten policy for the sake of officers in the field. Even if the policies are not programmatically pretextual in this way … their conflict afford GPD officers excessive discretion in allowing officers to choose which of two protocols will govern their searches.”

Thus, the police department’s existing inventory regime could not sufficiently regulate inventory searches by its officers, Mathias wrote. Further, because Jones testified that he only searched the fast-food bag because it seemed “suspicious” and would not normally search such an item during the inventory, “the search (was) pretextual and therefore unreasonable,” the judge said.

Thus, as Sams argued, the drug evidence was an inadmissible fruit of the inventory, Mathias said, so the appellate court vacated his meth conviction and remanded with instructions to grant his motion to suppress.

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