Supreme Court: Officers had probable cause to detain man

Grant County law enforcement officials had probable cause to believe a Chicago man was in possession of a narcotic drug when they detained him and transported him to a police station, the Indiana Supreme Court held Thursday in an opinion affirming the man’s felony drug conviction.

In April 2014, the Joint Effort Against Narcotics Team Drug Task Force, which had officers in Marion and Grant County, received a tip about two men traveling from Chicago to Grant County in a white minivan with a temporary Illinois license plate to sell drugs. Detective Mark Stefanatos began surveillance of a Dodge Caravan matching that description that was occupied by Will Thomas and Byron Christmas.

After observing the van illegally change lanes without a turn signal, Stefanatos called for officer Joseph Martin to initiate a traffic stop while also calling for a canine unit. Once the traffic stop was initiated, both men claimed to be in Indiana to visit family, yet could not identify where in the state their family lived. Christmas was also unable to provide identification, claiming he left his driver’s license in Chicago.

While the traffic stop was occurring, a narcotics canine circled the vehicle and alerted to the presence of narcotics at the driver’s door. The officers then conducted pat-down searches of Thomas and Christmas, but found no drugs or weapons. Christmas then gave permission for the canine to search the vehicle, but it no longer detected the presence of narcotics once inside.

When the officers asked if the men would consent to a strip search at the police station, Christmas agreed and was found with $750 in cash on his person. Thomas declined, so the officers applied for a search warrant and transferred him to the police station to wait. Thomas was then placed in an interview room, where he was seen on surveillance footage removing a plastic bag of heroin from his pocket and placing it in his mouth. Officers had to forcibly remove the bag from his mouth.

After that incident, the state charged Thomas with Class A felony dealing in a narcotic and Class B misdemeanor battery. Thomas moved to suppress the evidence recovered at the police station, arguing the officers lacked probable cause to detain him, but the Grant Superior Court denied that motion.

Thomas was found guilty of the Class A felony, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed his conviction in December, finding his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when he was detained and taken to the police station. But after hearing arguments in Thomas’ case in May, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed his conviction Thursday in the case of Will Thomas v. State of Indiana, 27S02-1703-CR-170.

Justice Steve David, writing for a unanimous court, determined Thomas was, in fact, in police custody when he was transported to the police station. The officers gave him two options while he was still on the side of the road – consent to the search or be detained at the station while a warrant was pending – so no reasonable person could believe they had a third option of walking away from police, David said.

Further, when considering the circumstances of the case – including the tip from a reliable informant, the inconsistent answers Thomas and Christmas provided about why they were in Indiana and the positive canine alert when they were inside the vehicle – the high court determined a reasonable person could believe at least one of the men still possessed the drugs when he exited the vehicle, David said.

“In sum, we’re convicted officers met the probable cause threshold necessary to detain Thomas,” he said.

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