COA upholds admission of drunken driving evidence after motorist stopped for crossing center line

A request to suppress evidence in a Tippecanoe County man’s drunken driving case did not succeed at the Indiana Court of Appeals, which upheld the denial of the suppression motion and found that the stop of the man’s vehicle was lawful.

Pradeep Kumar Toppo was convicted of Level 6 felony operating a vehicle while intoxicated and Class C infraction driving left of center after being found by law enforcement behind the wheel with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.245.

Toppo, who was stopped by a Tippecanoe County sheriff’s deputy in 2018, “took a ‘long time’ to figure out how to lower his window,” was “very slow and lethargic,” had eyes that “were blood shot and glossy” and was “slurring his words.” The officer had observed Toppo’s vehicle weaving off of the fog line several times, tapping the brakes several times for apparent no reason and snaking down the road.

When asked to step out of the vehicle, Toppo tried to do so while still wearing his seat belt and had to use the vehicle to support himself. He subsequently failed two field sobriety tests, confirming the “the odor of alcohol” that the officer could smell from the vehicle.

Toppo later filed a motion to suppress “any and all physical evidence discovered directly or indirectly” following the traffic stop. He specifically asserted that the officer didn’t have an “objectively justifiable reason” to stop his vehicle and, as such, the stop violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment and Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution.

The Tippecanoe Superior Court found that the traffic stop was reasonable and denied Toppo’s motion to suppress. He was then convicted and sentenced to 545 days, with one year suspended and 180 days served on community corrections.

Toppo appealed, arguing the trial court erred under the Fourth Amendment when it admitted evidence that Deputy Jacob Minott had obtained following the traffic stop. But the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed in Pradeep Kumar Toppo v. State of Indiana, 20A-CR-2099.

“Toppo contends that Deputy Minott lacked probable cause to initiate the traffic stop because ‘there is no violation under Indiana Code [S]ection 9-21-8-2(a) when an individual ‘briefly’ touches the middle yellow line, as was the case in this matter.’ However, Toppo mischaracterizes the evidence,” Judge Edward Najam wrote for the appellate panel. “He did not simply touch the yellow center line. Rather, Deputy Minott testified that Toppo ‘crossed’ the yellow dividing line. More specifically, Deputy Minott stated that Toppo’s driver’s side tires crossed the center line such that they were in the ‘opposite lane of travel.’ Thus, contrary to Toppo’s assertions, the evidence demonstrates that at least two of his tires completely crossed the center line and exited the right-hand lane.”

The panel also found nothing to support Toppo’s assertion that crossing the center line for only a brief period of time does not amount to an infraction under Indiana law. As such, the appellate court concluded that if an officer observes an individual driving his vehicle left of center for any amount of time, that officer has observed the individual commit a traffic violation and therefore has probable cause to conduct a traffic stop.

“As such, Deputy Minott’s stop of Toppo’s vehicle was lawful, and the trial court did not err under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution when it admitted evidence Deputy Minott had seized following the traffic stop,” Najam concluded.

“We emphasize that this is a case where the officer initiated a traffic stop of Toppo after he had witnessed Toppo commit a traffic violation and, thus, had probable cause to stop Toppo,” the panel added. “This is not a case where an officer initiated a traffic stop based on the officer’s belief that a motorist had committed a crime, in which case the officer would need reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop.”

In a footnote, the panel added that Toppo did not preserve for appellate review his argument under the Indiana Constitution.

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