4th Amendment argument fails in fatal hit-and-run case

A man could not convince an appellate panel that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when his vehicle was towed without a warrant in an investigation of a deadly hit-and-run.

Dennis Payne Jr. was convicted of Level 5 felony failure to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in death and Level 6 felony obstruction of justice after he swerved off the road, struck and killed a pedestrian walking in the grass and continued onto the Sam Jones Expressway in Indianapolis.

A witness to the crime informed police of the vehicle’s make and where it was headed, and law enforcement subsequently found the vehicle parked in a church parking lot in Brooklyn. Front-end damage to the Toyota 4Runner was consistent with a pedestrian hit, and after waiting 45 minutes for Payne to arrive at the scene, the vehicle was towed.

A search warrant was later granted to search the 4Runner, where detectives discovered pieces from the vehicle’s front-end inside, clothing matching the suspects’ attire worn on the day of the crime and receipts s from hours before the crime occurred. A jury ultimately found Payne guilty of the charges, and he was sentenced to five years.

In affirming the Marion Superior Court, the Indiana Court of Appeals found that police properly seized Payne’s 4Runner pursuant to the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception because they had probable cause to believe that it was evidence of the hit-and-run crime. Although he conceded there was probable cause, Payne claimed the automobile exception did not apply to his case because his 4Runner was parked in a “residential area.”

However, the appellate court found that while the automobile exception does not apply when a car is parked on private residential property, it does apply when a car is parked on property that is open to the public, such as a city street or a business parking lot. Payne’s 4Runner was parked in a church parking lot, which is open to the public and not private residential property, to which he also conceded during oral argument.

“Accordingly, the police did not violate Payne’s Fourth Amendment rights when they seized his 4Runner without a warrant,” Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik concluded for the panel.

The appellate court neither found a violation of Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution and thus affirmed the convictions set forth in Dennis R. Payne, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-394. 

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