Appellate court allows evidence from rental vehicle in Vanderburgh Co. drug trial

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Evidence uncovered during the search of a rental vehicle can be admitted in a man’s Vanderburgh County drug trial, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled, finding that the defendant did not have a privacy interest in the rental at the time it was searched.

The case of Marcus M. Wilson v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-366,  began in September 2019, when Evansville and Vanderburgh County law enforcement officials were surveilling a house following a drug tip.

During the surveillance, Lt. Monty Guenin began to follow a black Tahoe, the driver of which was later identified as appellant-defendant Marcus Wilson. Wilson had stopped the Tahoe at the house on Marshall Street in Evansville that was under surveillance, prompting Guenin to follow him.

On a tip from Guenin, Detective Robert Schmitt stopped Wilson in the Tahoe after Wilson committed two traffic infractions. Wilson initially provided a false ID bearing the name Latroy Stovall and refused to consent to a search of the Tahoe. He later admitted that his license was expired and that the Tahoe had been rented by his cousin “Troy.” Schmitt later testified that Stovall’s name was on the rental agreement.

Schmitt arrested Wilson for false informing, then obtained consent from the rental company to search the vehicle. The search uncovered cocaine, heroin, MDMA and marijuana.

Wilson was subsequently charged on four drug counts, including two felonies and two misdemeanors. He moved to suppress his statements to officers during the traffic stop and to suppress evidence obtained during the search of the Tahoe, but the Vanderburgh Circuit Court denied the latter. His pre-Miranda statements to the officers, however, were suppressed.

On an interlocutory appeal, Wilson asked the Court of Appeals not to address the issue raised by the state: whether he had standing under the Fourth Amendment to challenge the search of the Tahoe because he obtained the vehicle through fraud. He argued the state had waived that issue because it did not challenge his standing in the trial court.

But “Wilson argued the issue of whether he had a protectable privacy interest during the suppression proceedings, and he has placed the issue squarely before this court in his appellate brief,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote in a Tuesday opinion. “… Therefore, we will address whether Wilson had standing to challenge the search of the Tahoe.”

Turning to the merits, the COA relied on Byrd v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 1518 (2018), to find that Wilson did not have a protectable privacy interest in the Tahoe.

“… Byrd merely stands for the proposition that a defendant’s status as the unauthorized driver of a rental car does not defeat his claim to standing. Such a defendant must still show that he was ‘someone in otherwise lawful possession and control’ of the rental car to establish his standing under Byrd,” Riley wrote.

“… Contrary to his assertion on appeal, Wilson’s statement after the search that Troy had rented the Tahoe does not support a reasonable inference that Troy had lent the vehicle to Wilson,” Riley continued. “In addition, although after the search Wilson informed an officer that his license was suspended, we need not address the issue of whether the status of Wilson’s driver’s license impacted his claim to standing, as we have already concluded that he did not show that he had Stovall’s permission to use the Tahoe.

“In sum, because Wilson did not meet his burden to show that he lawfully possessed the Tahoe when it was searched, the trial court properly denied his motion to suppress.”

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