Split COA orders suppression of evidence from traffic stop based on ‘inactive’ registration

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A man who was pulled over for having an “inactive” car registration has convinced a split Court of Appeals of Indiana panel that evidence stemming from the stop should be suppressed.

In October 2020, Brownsburg Police Department Cpl. Christopher Nelson was on patrol when he submitted an inquiry to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles regarding a car’s registration. The BMV record screen showed the registration’s status was “inactive,” but it also showed that the expiration date for the license number was Dec. 7, 2020.

On the basis of the “inactive” registration status, Nelson initiated a traffic stop of the car, driven by Avis Deforest White.

As a result of the traffic stop, the state charged White with Level 4 felony possession of cocaine; Level 6 felony theft of a firearm; Level 6 felony obstruction of justice; Class A misdemeanor driving while suspended; Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana; and an infraction relating to the car’s registration.

White filed a motion to suppress, and during a hearing Nelson testified that he stopped the car due to the inactive registration.

But under cross-examination, Nelson conceded the registration for White’s car was not expired. He further testified that the car did not “currently have an active registration[,]” but that he did not know what the “inactive” designation actually meant.

Ultimately, the Hendricks Superior Court denied White’s motion to suppress and an appeal ensued.

In reversing, the COA majority found that Nelson conflated the word “inactive” with “expired.”

“We have previously recognized that ‘reasonable suspicion can rest on a mistaken understanding of the scope of a legal prohibition,'” Williams v. State, 28 N.E.3d 293, 294 (Ind. Ct. App. 2015) … ,” Judge Peter Foley, who was joined by Judge Paul Mathias in the majority, wrote. “Williams represented a turning point in our jurisprudence on this matter. Previously, we held that an officer’s good-faith but inaccurate belief about what constitutes an infraction was insufficient to establish reasonable suspicion.

“… Williams, however, is materially distinguishable from the instant case,” Foley continued. “… Here we are not engaged with the question of whether a statute is ambiguous, such that Corporal Nelson’s misunderstanding of the statute could be reasonable. There simply is no statute prohibiting an ‘inactive’ registration.”

The majority found that whether the registration was “inactive” does not bear on the question of reasonable suspicion.

“We cannot conclude that — as an objective matter — a reasonable officer would seek to enforce laws that do not exist,” Foley wrote. “…. The Supreme Court has not determined that reasonable suspicion can rest on whether a legal prohibition exists at all. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s denial of White’s motion to suppress.”

In a dissent, Judge Margret Robb wrote she would’ve affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress because she does not believe Nelson necessarily conflated the terms “inactive” and “expired,” or necessarily relied on Indiana Code § 9-18.1-11-2(c) as a basis for the stop.

“Considering the totality of the circumstances, I would hold it was objectively reasonable for Corporal Nelson to believe that any return other than ‘active’ indicated that something could be amiss with White’s registration and therefore he had reasonable suspicion to stop White’s vehicle,” Robb wrote.

The case is Avis Deforest White v. State of Indiana, 22A-CR-978.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected.

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