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COA tosses drug evidence after arrest lacking probable cause

March 22, 2018

Indianapolis police who approached a vehicle with guns drawn after a man exited lacked probable cause, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Thursday, suppressing evidence of drugs found in the vehicle.

The appeals court ruled that evidence of heroin and methamphetamine found in the car was fruit of the poisonous tree stemming from a search that violated the Fourth Amendment, and that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the evidence.

The opinion on interlocutory appeal in Carl T. Wilson v. State of Indiana, 49A04-1706-CR-1201, found that even though Wilson gave his consent to officers to search his vehicle, the consent came after officers had effectively arrested him by approaching with guns drawn and placing him in handcuffs without probable cause.

The incident began when a resident in a duplex called 911 to report an unrecognized vehicle parked in the yard of the unoccupied part of the duplex. Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officers Joshua Stayton and Jeremy Miller responded to the call in what they called a high-crime neighborhood. Using a spotlight, they saw two people inside a car parked in an apartment parking lot in the same block as the 911 caller’s residence, and they approached.

Stayton said they recognized the passenger as someone with a history of prostitution and drug use. As they approached, Wilson exited the driver’s side but immediately went back in and reached toward the center console.

“Because of his knowledge of crime in the area and Wilson’s movements inside the vehicle, Officer Stayton drew his weapon and ordered Wilson to show his hands. Wilson complied. When asked if he was hiding anything, Wilson replied, ‘[T]here is nothing in the vehicle, and [officers] could search the vehicle. ... The officers patted Wilson down and handcuffed him ‘for [officer] safety,’” Judge Melissa May wrote.

Officers popped loose a part of the center console and found a bag containing heroin and meth, and Wilson was charged with Level 2 felony counts of dealing in a narcotic drug and dealing in methamphetamine as well as Level 3 felony possession counts. Wilson moved to suppress the evidence, arguing the search and seizure was illegal. The Marion Superior trial court denied the motion last March without issuing findings.

The COA reversed that denial and ordered the evidence suppressed.

“Officers Stayton and Miller were responding to a dispatch regarding a suspicious vehicle in the backyard of the unoccupied portion of the caller’s duplex home. The vehicle they eventually approached was not parked in the duplex yard but rather, in the parking lot of a nearby apartment complex,” May wrote for the panel.

“Without minimizing the officers’ testimony that they observed Wilson lean into the car and they were concerned about a possible firearm or narcotics, such behavior is not enough, by itself, to support reasonable suspicion, let alone probable cause. … What may have begun as an investigatory stop quickly transformed into an arrest. Wilson complied with all of the officers’ orders. The officers approached Wilson at gunpoint and then handcuffed him. Wilson remained handcuffed and guarded by one or the other officer while two searches of his vehicle were conducted. A reasonable person would not believe himself free to leave.

“Under the facts presented, Officer Stayton’s approach with a gun drawn and the subsequent handcuffing of Wilson was more than required to either confirm or dispel the officers’ suspicion Wilson had been parked at the duplex. The officers’ actions exceeded the scope of an investigatory stop and became an arrest without probable cause. As the arrest was without probable cause, the admission of evidence obtained from the search was in error,” the panel held.

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