COA: Mistake of fact not enough to overturn seizure of drugs

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Even though the driver was pulled over on a private roadway, the drugs seized as a result will still be admitted as evidence after the Court of Appeals of Indiana found the traffic stop was a mistake of fact and not a mistake of law.

Angelito Mercado was stopped on Carrie Lane by Columbus Police Officer Drake Maddix. The officer knew Mercado had a suspended license and initiated the stop as the car was headed toward State Road 46.

In a subsequent search of Mercado and his car, police found raw marijuana and four baggies of what appeared to be crystal methamphetamine along with one baggie of what was suspected to be cocaine.

The state subsequently charged Mercado with Level 2 felony dealing in meth, Level 6 felony possession of cocaine, Class A misdemeanor resisting law enforcement, Class A misdemeanor operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license and Class B misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Mercado moved to suppress the evidence, in part, on the grounds that Carrie Lane is not a publicly maintained street as required in order for police to pull a driver over for the offense of operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license. Consequently, he argued, the search and seizure during the traffic stop violated Article I, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Bartholomew Circuit Court denied Mercado’s motion and the Court of Appeals affirmed in Angelito Mercado v. State of Indiana, 22A-CR-459.

The appellate panel agreed with Mercado that Carrie Lane is a private access road maintained by the three businesses it serves. However, the COA found that because Maddix thought the street was public, he made a mistake of fact and not a mistake of law.

To illustrate the difference, the Court of Appeals pointed to two recent cases.

In State v. Davis, 143 N.E.3d 343 (Ind. Ct. App. 2020), the court held a traffic stop was invalid after the officer pulled over a motorist for exiting a roundabout without using a turn signal. Conversely, in Dowdy v. State, 83 N.E.3d 755 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017), the court found valid a traffic stop that had been initiated by an officer who had received a report that a motorist had an expired registration. The report turned out to be incorrect.

“The basis for Officer Maddix’s stop of Mercado’s vehicle is like the mistake of fact in Dowdy, and it is not like the mistaken understanding of what Indiana law proscribes that was at issue in Davis,” Judge Paul Mathais wrote for the majority. “Officer Maddix had no misunderstanding that the operating-a-motor-vehicle-with-a-suspended-license statute required the operator of the vehicle to be on a publicly maintained way.

“Rather, like the officer in Dowdy who mistakenly believed the motorist had an expired registration, Officer Maddix believed Carrie Lane to be a publicly maintained way,” Mathias continued. “Officer Maddix was in fact incorrect, but his legal basis for initiating the stop was sound.”

As for Mercado’s assertion that his state and federal constitutional rights were violated, the Court of Appeals did not agree. Mercado had argued Maddix made omissions and misstatements in his probable cause affidavit in support of a second search warrant.

The appellate panel held that the facts in the case sufficiently established probable cause to search Mercado’s person. Any omissions or misstatements the officer made would not have negated that probable cause.

Chief Judge Cale Bradford wrote separately, concurring in result with the majority opinion.

He argued that Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution does not protect Hoosiers from reasonable mistakes of law.

“I acknowledge, of course, that Article 1, Section 11, provides protection from unreasonable mistakes of law and that, according to Hoosier standards of reasonableness regarding mistakes of law, Section 11 may offer more protection than the Fourth Amendment in some cases,” Bradford wrote. “There is, however, nothing in either the text of Article 1, Section 11, or in the jurisprudence of the Indiana Supreme Court that provides any support for the proposition that a reasonable mistake of law should be treated differently than any other reasonable police activity, i.e., activity from which Article 1, Section 11, offers no protection.”

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