Drug evidence found in locked safe properly admitted, COA rules

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A man’s convictions of possessing meth and a syringe were upheld Monday when an appellate panel affirmed no abuse of discretion occurred when evidence discovered inside a locked safe in his car were admitted at trial.

William Washburn, the target of a Jeffersonville Police Department narcotics investigation, was pulled over and subsequently arrested when officers discovered an active warrant for his arrest in another state. A K-9 unit on the scene signaled narcotics were present inside Washburn’s vehicle, and a locked safe was discovered in the back seat. Officers forced open the safe with a pry bar, revealing several drug-related materials, including a gun, a digital scale, less than one gram of meth, and empty plastic baggies containing trace amounts of meth. 

Washburn filed a motion to suppress, alleging that evidence found by police during the traffic stop was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. The motion was denied on the basis that the search was performed pursuant to the vehicle exception to the warrant requirement and that exception extended to the locked safe found inside the vehicle.

A jury could not reach a verdict on Washburn’s charge of Level 4 felony dealing in less than one gram of meth, but found him guilty of Level 5 felony possession of methamphetamine and Level 6 felony possession of a syringe charge, respectively. He was thus sentenced to concurrent terms of three years for both convictions.   

On appeal, Washburn contended that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the challenged evidence found inside the locked safe. Specifically, he challenged the use of a pry bar to open the safe after the K-9 had isolated the safe from the backpack as the source of the odor of illegal drugs.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals found no issue with the admission of that evidence in William Washburn v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-2073, concluding that the totality of the facts supported law enforcement’s decision to use the pry bar to open the safe, and the search was reasonable under Litchfield v. State.

First, the appellate court noted that it was “beyond question” that the officers’ degree of concern, suspicion, or knowledge that drugs were inside the safe was extremely high and therefore added to the reasonableness of opening the safe.

The panel then noted that because Washburn was the subject of a narcotics investigation and the K-9 alerted to drugs in the safe only after he had already been arrested on an outstanding warrant, the appellate court found that the degree of intrusion into Washburn’s ordinary activities was very low.

“Here, Washburn was under arrest, his passenger had been released at the scene, and his car was being towed. While we agree that the law enforcement needs were relatively low, balanced against the concern that drugs would be found in the safe and the minimal intrusion on Washburn’s ordinary activities, the weight favors a determination that the search was reasonable,” Judge James Kirsch wrote for the court. 

“Accordingly, we conclude that the search and seizure of evidence from the safe was permissible under Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution.”

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