Reversal: COA rules for accused robber in suppression dispute

A man charged with armed robbery won a reversal from the Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday after the appellate panel found the trial court erred in concluding that he was not in custody when officers searched his backpack and was not entitled to be advised of his rights.

After locating a suspect in a Bloomington armed robbery in which electronics were stolen, officers began questioning Tony Atkins and asked to search his backpack for weapons.

When Atkins complied, the officers found three laptops inside, one of which was later discovered to belong to the man who reported the robbery. As Atkins continued to deny involvement, the officers again asked to see Atkins’ laptops, and he continued to ask why the officers needed to go through his personal items.

Atkins was eventually arrested and charged with Level 1 felony burglary, Level 2 felony robbery and Level 3 felony armed robbery. He filed a motion to suppress, arguing that his rights under Pirtle v. State, 263 Ind. 16, 323 N.E.2d 634 (1975), and Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444, 86 S. Ct. 1602 (1966), were violated. He also asserted that he did not feel free to leave during the encounter with police, was not given Miranda warnings, was not informed that he had the right to refuse to consent to a search of his property and was not informed that he had a right to an attorney.

A now-retired Monroe Circuit Court judge initially granted Atkins’ motion to suppress, but a second judge later granted the state’s motion to correct error and reversed. The trial court concluded Atkins’ consent to search the backpack was not the result of duress or coercion and found no violation of Pirtle or Miranda.

Atkins filed this interlocutory appeal, contesting the grant of the state’s motion to correct error and denial of his motion to suppress the results of the search of his backpack, as well as his statements to the officers. In determining whether Atkins was in custody at that time, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded that he was, reversing and remanding in Tony Bethel Atkins v. State of Indiana, 19A-CR-00951.

“There is no bright line rule to determine whether Atkins was merely subjected to a Terry stop or whether he was in custody. The State argues that Atkins was not in custody until he was handcuffed. Atkins argues that, at some point, the interaction went from a Terry stop to a custodial situation. After considering the totality of the circumstances and the factors identified by our Supreme Court in State v. Ruiz, 123 N.E.3d 675, 679 (Ind. 2019) and Meredith v. State, 906 N.E.2d 867, 873-74 (Ind. 2009), we conclude that Atkins was in custody,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote for the appellate court.

It further found that because Atkins did not receive a Pirtle warning before the search of the laptop in his backpack, was entitled to one and did not explicitly waive his right to counsel prior to the search, the trial court erred by granting the state’s motion and reversing the earlier grant of Atkins’ motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the search.

“Earlier in the interaction, when Detective (Jacob) Hunter asked if Atkins had any weapons in his backpack, Detective Hunter said, ‘You can say no, request a warrant, or ask for a lawyer if you want.’ Atkins, however, was not in custody at that time. Even if this statement applies to the later search of Atkins’ backpack, Detective Hunter’s statement fails to explicitly inform Atkins that he was entitled to the presence and advice of counsel prior to consenting to the search, and the statement fails to comply with the Pirtle advisement requirement for a person in custody,” the appellate court wrote.

Lastly, it determined that because he was in custody, Atkins was entitled to an advisement of his Miranda rights prior to the police questioning him. The appellate court therefore concluded the trial court erred by granting the state’s motion to correct error and reversing the earlier grant of Atkins’ motion to suppress his statements to the police.

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