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Supreme Court reverses denial of motion to suppress in gun-tip case

May 10, 2017

Evidence of a man’s illegal possession of a handgun must be suppressed at his trial on remand after the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday the evidence was obtained in violation of constitutional protections.

When Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers received a dispatch advising them of a black male dropping a handgun as he exited a taxi, officers Jason Palmer and George Stewart arrived at the Studio Movie Grill, where the man had exited the cab. They saw a black man matching the description the cab driver had provided seated in the lobby. The officers approached the man, later identified as Thomas Pinner, stood on either side of him and told him the taxi driver had reported that a man matching his description had a handgun on him.

After pausing for a few seconds, Pinner denied having a weapon, but when he complied with Palmer’s instructions to stand and put his hands up, the officer saw the butt of a gun in Pinner’s pocket. The weapon was secured, Pinner was detained and the state charged him with Class A misdemeanor carrying a handgun without a license, enhanced to a Level 5 felony due to a prior felony conviction.

Pinner filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the search and seizure were in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. The Marion Superior Court denied the motion, finding the officers had reasonable suspicion to approach and question Pinner. But a divided Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, finding “no reasonable suspicion justified the investigatory stop.”

The Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments in Thomas Pinner v. State of Indiana, 49S02-1611-CR-610, in December, with Pinner’s counsel repeating the argument that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to stop him. Specifically, Pinner argued “the tip from the cab driver did not provide the officers with information sufficient to demonstrate he was engaged in or about to engage in criminal activity.”

The justices agreed with that argument, with retiring Justice Robert Rucker noting in the opinion the taxi driver’s tip made no “assertion of illegality,” but rather “’had a tendency to identify a determinate person’ who was in possession of a handgun,” a phrase delineated in Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266 (2000). Assuming Pinner was the man the driver was describing, the officers still had no reason to suspect Pinner did not have a valid license to carry the gun, Rucker said.

“This is not a case where, through independent investigation or personal experience, the officers had reason to believe that Pinner’s possession of a weapon was in violation of Indiana law,” Rucker wrote. “In essence, other than the taxi driver’s claims of being fearful because he had seen an individual matching Pinner’s description ‘drop a handgun,’ there is no evidence in the record from which an inference of criminal activity can be drawn.”

Further, the court rejected the state’s argument that Pinner’s nervousness created reasonable suspicion and its argument that “the officers were permitted under the Fourth Amendment to briefly detain Defendant to ascertain the legality of the weapon and dispel any suspected criminal activity,” with Rucker noting the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected such “weapons or firearms exceptions.”

Thus, the high court reversed the denial of Pinner’s motion to suppress and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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