COA throws out handgun, driving with suspended license convictions

After determining an inventory search of a man’s car was actually investigatory in nature, the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned Monday the man’s conviction of possession of a handgun without a license. The court also threw out the man’s conviction of driving with a suspended license for lack of evidence.

After stopping Richard Sansbury’s car on Jan. 17, 2016 for failing to use a turn signal and a faulty headlight, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Detective Andrew McKalips learned Sansbury did not have a valid driver’s license. The vehicle was also parked in the middle of traffic at an apartment complex, so McKalips called a tow truck to impound the vehicle and began an inventory search.

During the search, McKalips found three handguns and ammunition and determined neither Sansbury nor his passenger had a valid permit for the guns. The search then ended, but McKalips had not prepared a written inventory of what he found in the vehicle.

The state charged Sansbury with possession of a handgun without a license and driving with a suspended license with a similar infraction within the past 10 years. Sansbury moved to suppress the evidence found during the search, but the Marion Superior Court denied the motion after an evidentiary hearing.

The evidence was then admitted over Sansbury’s objection at a bench trial, during which he declined to present any evidence. The trial court found him guilty as charged, prompting the instant appeal in Richard Bernard Sansbury v. State of Indiana, 49A05-1704-CR-793.

On appeal, Sansbury argued the guns and ammunition should not have been admitted as evidence because the impoundment of the vehicle violated his state and federal constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed, with Senior Judge Betty Barteau writing Monday the issue could be resolved completely under the Fourth Amendment.

Turning to a Fourth Amendment analysis, Barteau wrote the vehicle did pose a “threat of harm or was itself imperiled,” considering Sansbury did not have a valid license and chose to stop the car in the middle of the flow of traffic. However, the subsequent search of the vehicle was not constitutional, Barteau wrote, because the officers’ conduct “deviated greatly from the requirements of (IMPD’s impoundment) policy.”

Specifically, Barteau said neither McKalips nor Officer Mollie Johanningsmeier, whom he was training, created a list of the property found in the car. Additionally, McKalips focused his search on only valuable items, which was against department policy of taking an inventory of all items.

Johanningsmeier attempted to explain the deviations from department policy by saying that after McKalips found the guns, the search became one for evidence, not inventory. But Barteau said that testimony, coupled with their “misinterpretation of the policy,” led to the conclusion the search was investigatory. Thus, Sansbury’s conviction for possession of a handgun without a license was reversed.

The appellate court also overturned Sansbury’s driving without a license conviction on insufficient evidence grounds, finding his official driving record showed his license was suspended only from July 7, 2015 through Oct. 5, 2015. The case was remanded for further proceedings.

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