Driving while suspended conviction reversed; gun evidence upheld

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Evidence of a gun found inside a truck during a traffic stop was not suppressed despite a man’s appeal, but his conviction for driving while suspended was vacated by an appellate court after both parties agreed there was insufficient evidence to support it.

After Kenneth Davis was stopped for a traffic violation, the police officer who conducted the stop suspected the vehicle was stolen based on Davis’ suspended driver’s license and inability to prove the vehicle was his. 

Davis stepped out of the vehicle when asked and affirmatively answered that he had a weapon in the car, prompting the officer to handcuff him for safety concerns.

The officer later confirmed that the car was not stolen, but rather in the process of being purchased by Davis. He also found that Davis’ gun license was pending and had not yet been issued. The officer confiscated the gun and let Davis go, but Davis was later charged with Class A misdemeanor carrying a handgun without a license and Class A misdemeanor driving while suspended.

Davis moved to suppress evidence of the gun at trial, arguing that the officer “had no reason to search th[e] truck” for officer safety because Davis was “in handcuffs at the back of the truck.” The trial court later found Davis guilty of the carrying conviction, and although it did not discuss the suspended driving conviction, Davis’ sentencing order listed both convictions.

As a result, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed Davis’ driving while suspended conviction after noting that both parties agreed insufficient evidence was provided regarding the status of his license.

However, the appellate court found the search of Davis’ truck was lawful under Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983) based on the officer’s reasonable belief that the vehicle might have been stolen and that Davis was dangerous after answering affirmatively to having a weapon in the vehicle.

It further denied Davis’ argument that he could not gain immediate control of the gun because he was handcuffed and standing at the end of the truck.

“If Davis had been placed under arrest, we might agree with him. But Davis was not placed under arrest. He was merely detained temporarily while Officer (Christopher) Morgan was waiting to hear back whether the truck was stolen,” Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote for the panel.

“Because Davis was not arrested, it was possible that he would regain access to the truck. And in fact, Officer Morgan eventually learned that the truck was not stolen, Davis was not arrested on the scene, and when the owner arrived to pick up the truck, Davis’s girlfriend was with him.”

The appellate court therefore concluded that the search was lawful under Long, and that there was no error in admitting the officer’s testimony. The case of Kenneth Davis v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-2313, was thus remanded to the trial court with instructions to issue an amended sentencing order based on his vacated conviction.  

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