Indiana’s chief justice and its most senior justice dissented Wednesday from a decision upholding the admission of evidence in a drug case collected from a vehicle that arrived at a Camby home at the same time police were inside the house executing a search warrant that was limited to the property. A justice who sided with the majority, however, said the split decision is evidence that key caselaw regarding law enforcement searches and seizures may need to be revisited.
The decision in Brian E. Hardin v. State of Indiana, 20S-CR-418 garnered three written opinions that highlighted the challenges law enforcement and courts face in determining whether a search violated a defendant’s rights under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution or under Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution.
Hardin was convicted of dealing in and possession of methamphetamine and sentenced in Morgan Circuit Court to an aggregate 22 years in prison. But he challenged the evidence of 108 grams of crystal meth that Indiana State Police troopers found in a black bag beneath the seat of his truck.
Authorities had been searching Hardin’s home pursuant to a warrant while it was unoccupied, and they found evidence of meth and alleged drug transaction ledgers, among other things, before first Hardin’s girlfriend and daughter arrived, and later Hardin arrived separately.
After he entered his house, troopers detained him and searched the truck, though the warrant they had didn’t expressly allow for the search of vehicles. In the closest of decisions, the majority of the Indiana Supreme Court panel affirmed the decision after an analysis of whether it comported with the three-part reasonableness test of Litchfield v. State, 824 N.E.2d 356, 361 (Ind. 2005). The test balances these factors: the degree of concern, suspicion, or knowledge that a violation has occurred; the degree of intrusion the method of the search or seizure imposes on the citizen’s ordinary activities, and; the extent of law enforcement needs.
“The search here did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the law-enforcement officers knew that Hardin owned and controlled the vehicle searched and objectively reasonable indicia showed the same, so the vehicle in this situation fell within the scope of the warrant for the home,” Justice Christopher Goff wrote for the majority, joined by Justice Mark Massa and in part by Justice Geoffrey Slaughter.
“The search did not violate Article 1, Section 11 because the high degree of law enforcement concern and moderate law-enforcement need outweighed the moderate intrusion caused by the search, so the search was constitutionally reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances. Thus, we affirm the trial court’s admission of the evidence obtained from the search of the vehicle.”
Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Justice Steven David dissented, however, and would have aligned with Judge Paul Mathias’ dissent when the denial of Hardin’s motion to suppress was affirmed by a majority of a Court of Appeals panel.
Under the circumstances, David wrote, law enforcement easily could have obtained a warrant for the vehicle, meeting the presumed heightened protections against auto search and seizures under Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. They therefore had a different interpretation of the Litchfield factors.
“Beginning from this proposition — that it is best practice for officers to obtain a warrant — and ending with the facts that Hardin was no longer a flight risk and the vehicle was not going anywhere, I would find that the extent of law enforcement needs in this situation was extremely low. Though combatting the use and sale of drugs in our communities is certainly of utmost importance, I cannot agree that, on these facts, this factor weighs at all in the State’s favor,” David wrote in the dissent joined by Rush.
“On balance, I believe the search was unreasonable under Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution because, although the degree of concern or suspicion was relatively high, both the level of intrusion and needs of law enforcement weigh heavily against the State. I would suppress the evidence obtained from Hardin’s vehicle and remand this matter for a new trial.”
Slaughter, meanwhile, wrote in a concurring opinion that the decision in Hardin’s case may be an indictment of the Litchfield factors themselves. While he lent the decisive vote in Hardin’s case and said he agreed with its analysis, he noted “a recurring problem” with the jurisprudence.
“In the fifteen years since we decided Litchfield, our case reports have ballooned with examples of ongoing uncertainty among litigants and lower courts with how to apply its three factors for assessing whether challenged law-enforcement activity violates our constitution,” Slaughter wrote. “This longstanding uncertainty is evident here. Although the underlying facts are undisputed, respected jurists at all levels of our judiciary have arrived at different conclusions about what Litchfield means for Hardin. The nine judges who have reviewed his case have looked at the same facts and applied the same legal standard. Yet we have reached widely varying conclusions about the legal consequence of these uncontested facts. I cannot imagine a clearer sign of precedent in need of reconsideration.
“Under Litchfield, no one can predict how courts will decide a given case with a given set of facts. The resulting uncertainty is not good for law enforcement, which needs clear rules so it can conform its conduct to the law. It is not good for individuals, who need clear guidance on whether law enforcement has violated their rights. And it is not good for courts, which must vindicate these rights. In practice, Litchfield amounts to a legal Rorschach test—an “eye-of-the-beholder” inquiry incompatible with the rule of law. The problem, I submit, lies not with the disputed constitutional provision but with the test we have devised for interpreting it. Like most totality-of-the-circumstances tests that balance multiple factors, Litchfield is not susceptible to a clear application that produces an obvious legal outcome.
“Going forward, I hope the opportunity arises to consider a bright-line rule as a successor test to Litchfield for interpreting Article 1, Section 11— one consistent with our framers’ constitution and with the text, history, and structure of this constitutional provision.”