Justices: Motel room used for sting operation was not 'place of detention'

June 21, 2018

The Indiana Supreme Court has upheld the admission of incriminating statements made in a motel room during an undercover drug investigation after finding the motel room was not a “place of detention” requiring an electronic record of the statements. The court also created a test for analyzing whether a location can be considered a “place of detention” under Indiana Evidence Rule 617.

On June 18, 2015, Aaron Fansler accepted a Facebook friend request to connect with a user named “Kenzie Allen,” a fake named used by a Grant County drug task force team to facilitate a controlled drug buy. Communicating first through social media and then through private text messages, Fansler agreed to sell two-tenths of a gram of heroin to Kenzie at the Hart Motel in Marion.

The next day, Fansler visited Kenzie’s motel room, where he was greeted by Detective Wesley McCorkle, a member of the Joint Effort Against Narcotics (JEAN) team who posed as Kenzie’s brother.  The detective told Fansler Kenzie would return to the room shortly, so Fansler, who was acting visibly nervous, chose to wait outside. While outside, a second officer approached and arrested him.

After reading Fansler his Miranda rights in the motel room and searching his person, police found over a dozen pills, drug paraphernalia, cigarette packs and more than $250 in cash. Fansler then made two incriminating statements to the officers that became relevant at his trial and on appeal.

First, when asked “where the two points of heroin were,” Fansler told officers the drugs should have been located in the baggies. Officers then found another bag containing a substance that tested positive for heroin, and Fansler told them he had not informed them of that bag because he did not want to “get caught with it.”

After he was charged with numerous drug offenses, Fansler filed a motion to suppress his incriminating statements, which the Grant Circuit Court died. Then, during his jury trial, Fansler admitted possession, but denied intent to deliver and raised an affirmative entrapment defense.

The jury found Fansler guilty on all four counts after officers testified to his two self-incriminating statements. He was sentenced to 13-years for dealing, with ten years executed the Department of Correction and three years suspended and also received concurrent sentences of two years executed for possession of heroin, one year executed for possession of a controlled substance and one year executed for possession of paraphernalia.

In a unanimous August 2017 opinion, the  Indiana Court of Appeals upheld Fansler’s conviction, finding that while the trial court erred in admitting Fansler’s statements without an electronic recording, any error was harmless because of Fansler’s own admissions at trial and the generally uncontested nature of his possession of heroin. The Court of Appeals also found the trial court did not abuse its discretion in not considering his proposed mitigating factor – that “Kenzie” had induced or facilitated the offense.

The Indiana Supreme Court heard argument in Fansler’s case in November, then ruled on Thursday the trial court did not err in admitting the incriminating statements made after Fanlser was of his Miranda rights.

“Under Rule 617, officers must equip facilities serving the functional equivalent of a station house with recording devices, but a motel room used sporadically to carry out a sting operation is simply not the type place the rule was meant to reach,” Justice Steven David wrote Thursday.

In reaching that decision, the unanimous justices developed a three-part test for determining when a location meets Rule 617’s definition of a “place of detention” requiring an electronic record: analyzing the control law enforcement has over the premises, the frequency of use to conduct custodial interrogations and the purpose for which law enforcement uses the space.

Here, David said law enforcement did not have “control” over the motel room because the room was used for its intended purpose when law enforcement was not there. Further, David said police used the room only sporadically to perform sting operations, and the primary use of the motel room was surveillance.

“A motel room, as used by law enforcement in this case—to carry out an undercover investigation and to search a suspect incident to his arrest—is not a place of detention as defined by Indiana Evidence Rule 617,” he said.

The justices also summarily affirmed the Court of Appeals’ ruling regarding Fansler’s proffered mitigator.

The case is Aaron L. Fansler v. State of Indiana, 27S02-1710-CR-672.




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