Appeals court reverses drug-possession convictions in OWI case

A Boone County man’s drug-possession convictions were reversed Thursday after an appellate panel found the warrantless search of his car following a crash violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

After driving his van into an electrical box to avoid hitting another vehicle, James Combs took photos of the damage to his van, rummaged around under the driver’s seat and then left the scene. An officer who arrived shortly after followed a fluid trail that eventually led to Combs’ home at a nearby neighborhood, where he had parked the damaged van.

Combs, who an officer suspected was under the influence of medication or drugs, then failed two field sobriety tests and stated that he had taken his prescribed Adderall medication. After agreeing to submit to a chemical test and being handcuffed for transport, but before he was taken to the hospital, Combs told officers they could look under the seat of his van but not open the black bag they had found.

Officers, however, searched the van in Combs’ driveway without a warrant after calling for the vehicle to be towed, finding a prescription bottle for Combs and white pills that later revealed to be three different controlled substances – Alprazolam, Hydrocodone, and Oxycodone. Combs’ urine drug screen eventually revealed the presence of the same substances, as did his blood screen.

Combs was then charged with numerous drug possession and operating a vehicle while intoxicated counts. The Boone Superior Court denied Combs’ motion to suppress after concluding that that the officers had probable cause to believe the van was connected to criminal activity and therefore could seize the van without a warrant.

A jury later found Combs not guilty of possession of a controlled substance, but affirmed his remaining felony and misdemeanor counts of possession of narcotic drugs; operating a vehicle while intoxicated endangering a person; operating a vehicle while intoxicated; operating a vehicle with a schedule I or II controlled substance or its metabolite in the body; leaving the scene of an accident; and public intoxication.

But the Indiana Court of Appeals partially reversed Combs’ three convictions of possession of narcotic drugs after finding that the warrantless search of his vehicle was impermissible under the open view and plain view doctrines, as well as the Fourth Amendment. It additionally noted that the record supported a finding that the officers’ inventory search was a pretext for searching Combs’ van.

“Combs admitted that he was going to contact law enforcement regarding the accident; therefore, it is not clear why the officers needed the van to solve the crime. The State presented no evidence that the van would ‘prove useful in solving’ the investigations into the charges of leaving the scene of an accident or driving while intoxicated. The damage was on the outside of the vehicle and photographs of the vehicle could have preserved the evidence. Nothing in the record indicates that the officers had probable cause to believe the van contained evidence that was related to the offenses being investigated,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote for the appellate court.

However, it found no abuse of the trial court’s discretion in admitting evidence of the chemical blood draw. Neither did the appellate court find the trial court abused its discretion in declining to replace a juror who knew one of the state’s witnesses with an alternate juror.

Lastly, the appellate court found that the deputy prosecutor did not commit misconduct and the evidence was sufficient to convict Combs of leaving the scene of an accident and operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

It therefore affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded in James W. Combs v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-1991.  

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