COA: No Fourth Amendment violation in traffic stop search

A man convicted on drug charges after an Evansville traffic stop has lost his appellate argument that evidence of the drugs was wrongly admitted because the evidence came from an unconstitutional search.

In Shane E. O’Keefe v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-1733, off-duty Evansville Police Lt. Brent Hoover stopped a black Harley-Davidson motorcycle that was traveling with no visible license plate. Shane O’Keefe was driving with Megan Schmitt riding along, and when Hoover approached the couple, he observed that Schmitt was “extremely nervous.”

The lieutenant then saw a large knife bag attached to the motorcycle and took custody of the weapon. Meanwhile, upon running Schmitt’s information, Hoover learned she had an active misdemeanor arrest warrant.

While he was still in his patrol car, Hoover saw Schmitt talking on a cellphone and starting to walk away. Schmitt began running when Hoover got out of his car, so Hoover put O’Keefe in handcuffs “for the purposes of civilian and officer safety.”

“Lieutenant Hoover ‘didn’t know what was taking place, why [Schmitt had fled] … hadn’t been able to determine ownership of the motorcycle or any of those things at that point,’” Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Terry Crone wrote in a Friday opinion. “Because Lieutenant Hoover observed that O’Keefe was wearing a motorcycle vest with several large bulges, he did a brief patdown search of O’Keefe for weapons. He located a sharpening stone for a knife in one of O’Keefe’s vest pockets and removed it.”

Detective Nathan Hassler then arrived at the scene and took custody of O’Keefe while Hoover pursued Schmitt. Like Hoover, Hassler observed “a lot of bulky items in (O’Keefe’s) motorcycle vest,” so he conducted another patdown, unaware that Hoover had done the same. That search revealed a large knife in O’Keefe’s pocket.

“Because his pockets were ‘so packed full of items[,]’ in order to get to the knife, Detective Hassler had to first remove a cloth ‘sheath’ from O’Keefe’s pocket,” Crone wrote. “Due to the ‘flimsy material’ of the sheath, and without needing to ‘manipulate the [sheath] in any way,’ it was immediately apparent to Detective Hassler upon grabbing it that it contained a pipe commonly used to consume methamphetamine.”

O’Keefe was placed under arrest and read his rights, at which point he admitted to having “dope.” A search incident to arrest uncovered three baggies of meth, and O’Keefe admitted to a lifelong struggle with addiction.

O’Keefe was then charged, and later convicted, of felony possession of meth and misdemeanor possession of paraphernalia, as well as two traffic infractions. He moved to suppress evidence obtained during the traffic stop on constitutional grounds, and he later filed a continuing objection, but both motions were defeated.

He was likewise defeated on appeal, with the COA rejecting his argument that Hassler’s patdown search was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights and, thus, the admission of evidence from that search was an abuse of discretion.

“Based upon the admittedly thin record before us, we think that a reasonably prudent man in Detective Hassler’s position would be warranted in the belief that his safety or that of others was in danger, justifying his patdown search of O’Keefe,” Crone wrote for a unanimous appellate panel. “Specifically, the chaotic scene that Detective Hassler happened upon, coupled with his observations of large bulges in O’Keefe’s vest that he believed could be weapons, formed an objectively reasonable basis for a patdown search.

“Accordingly, we conclude that Detective Hassler’s patdown search did not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment, and therefore the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting evidence obtained as a result, including evidence obtained directly as well as derivatively from the search,” the panel held. “We affirm O’Keefe’s convictions.”

In a footnote, Crone said O’Keefe also raised an argument under Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution, but conceded “that Indiana has adopted the same rationale as applied in Fourth Amendment cases in deciding the reasonableness of an investigatory stop and subsequent patdown search.” Thus, the panel did not review the state and federal constitutional arguments separately.

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