COA reverses drug convictions because arresting officer wasn’t in ‘distinctive’ uniform

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The Court of Appeals of Indiana has ordered the reversal of a man’s drug-related convictions after determining that the officer who arrested him was not wearing a “distinctive” uniform, making the underlying traffic stop invalid.

The case — James A. Cassity v. State of Indiana, 23A-CR-209 — began in January 2020, when Elkhart City Police Department officer Justin Gage, who was in an unmarked car, was surveilling hotels for drug activity. During his surveillance, Gage twice saw James Cassity fail to signal while turning.

Gage thus initiated a traffic stop. At the time, he was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, a vest with the word “POLICE,” and a badge on the shoulder area of the vest.

As Gage approached Cassity’s car from the passenger side, he saw a woman, later identified as Nicole Doty, frantically placing something behind the center console. Cassity and Doty also were acting nervously, and Doty was shaking and reaching under her left thigh.

Gage saw a baggy with what he believed to be methamphetamine in the front passenger seat when Doty exited the car. He also saw Cassity glance behind the center console as he exited the car.

Meanwhile, another member of the Elkhart Police, officer Gruber, arrived wearing clothing similar to Gage’s, including a “POLICE” vest.

Gage and Gruber handcuffed both Cassity and Doty after they exited the car.

Two officers driving marked police cars arrived while Gage searched Cassity’s car for drugs. He found a zipped bag behind the center console containing meth, as well as a baggy of meth and a pipe containing burnt residue on Cassity.

The state charged Cassity with Level 6 felony possession of meth and Class A misdemeanor possession of paraphernalia.

He moved to suppress the meth and paraphernalia found during the traffic stop, arguing Gage did not have the authority to stop him under the Police Uniform Statute because he was in an unmarked car and was not in a “distinctive” police uniform. He cited Davis v. State, 858 N.E.2d 168 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006).

But the Elkhart Superior Court denied the motion to suppress, finding Gage’s attire was distinctive enough to show he was a police officer. At trial, the court noted Cassity’s ongoing objection to Gage’s authority to conduct the stop.

The jury found Cassity guilty as charged, and he was sentenced to an aggregate of two years.

But in overturning his convictions, the Court of Appeals agreed with Cassity that Gage’s attire was not sufficiently distinctive.

“Gage’s vest did not transform his civilian clothes into a ‘distinctive uniform,’” Judge Rudolph Pyle wrote. “This is certainly true in the context of an officer driving an unmarked car at night and wearing civilian clothing, including a sweatshirt and jeans, beneath the vest. Further, none of the accoutrements affixed to Officer Gage’s vest clearly identified him as an Elkhart police officer except his badge, which is a separate requirement of the Police Uniform Statute. See I.C. § 9-30-2-2(a)(1).”

The COA found Cassity’s case to be similar to Davis, holding, “As we did in Davis, we again hold that a black vest with the word police written across it, worn over civilian clothes, does not satisfy the distinctive uniform requirement of the Police Uniform Statute.”

“Accordingly,” Pyle concluded, “we hold that the vest worn by Officer Gage does not satisfy the ‘distinctive uniform’ requirement of the Police Uniform Statute. As a result, the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted the methamphetamine and paraphernalia obtained as a result of this invalid traffic stop.”

Judges Nancy Vaidik and Paul Mathias concurred.

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