SVF conviction upheld over search, prior felony objections

A man’s conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon will stand after the Indiana Court of Appeals found a warrantless search of the vehicle he was riding in at the time of his arrest did not violate federal or state constitutional protections.

During a traffic stop, Robert McAnalley, his wife and friend were pulled over in a vehicle driven by McAnalley’s wife. When officers learned that McAnalley had an active felony warrant out for his arrest, he was asked to step out of the vehicle, along with the other occupants. Officers who conducted a visual search of the car after placing McAnalley in handcuffs then spotted a gun magazine and handgun in the glovebox, which had no door. The officers did not have to touch or manipulate anything in the vehicle in order to see the gun, which was in plain view without the glovebox’s cover to conceal it.

McAnalley was then charged with Level 4 felony unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon and with being a habitual offender. A trial court concluded that because McAnalley had been previously seen leaning forward toward the glovebox before officers approached the vehicle, it was reasonable for the officers to have looked at the glove compartment where the presence of the firearm was immediately apparent.

Despite McAnalley’s objections, the trial court admitted the handgun into evidence at trial. McAnalley was ultimately convicted of the charges, receiving an eight-year sentence enhanced by 10 years for being a habitual offender.

In Robert McAnalley v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-01099, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed his convictions, finding the admission of handgun evidence did not violate McAnalley’s federal or state constitutional protections. It first concluded that the trial court correctly denied his motion to suppress and that there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment protections.

 “We agree that there is no crime for possession of a handgun by a person with an outstanding felony warrant. Here, however, the handgun was found under suspicious circumstances, and was seized only after McAnalley admitted ownership and that he should not possess it,” Senior Judge Carr Darden wrote.

The appellate court additionally found that under the totality of the circumstances, the officer’s behavior was reasonable and did not violate protections afforded under the Indiana Constitution.

“Here, there was a high degree of concern, suspicion, or knowledge that a violation had occurred and the intrusion upon McAnalley’s activities was minimal. Further, unlike in (State v. Moore, 796 N.E.2d 764 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003)), where the defendant put both hands out of the window for officers to see, McAnalley made furtive movements toward the dashboard area of the vehicle. Furthermore, Moore did not have an outstanding felony arrest warrant at the time of his encounter with the police,” Darden wrote.

In his final argument, McAnalley contended that given the repeated references to his prior robbery conviction, the jury was likely unfairly influenced to believe that he and not someone else in the vehicle constructively possessed the handgun. Due to the overwhelming nature of evidence against him, the appellate court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by instructing the jury on the specific nature of McAnalley’s prior felony and admitting evidence of the specific prior felony.

It noted, however, the better practice would be to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Old Chief v. U.S., 519 U.S. 172, 117 S. Ct. 644, 136 L. Ed. 2d 574 (1997) and the Indiana Supreme Court opinion in Russell v. State, 997 N.E.2d 351 (Ind. 2013).

Judge Cale Bradford concurred in result in a separate opinion, but disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that bifurcation as used in Russell is a better or necessary practice when a defendant is charged with Level 4 felony unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon.

“Rather than conducting a bifurcated trial with a first phase regarding a possession charge that does not exist, a better practice is for the trial court to craft instructions and accept stipulations that minimize the potential for prejudice by stating ‘previously convicted of a felony enumerated under Indiana Code section 35-47-4-5’ instead of explicitly naming the prior felony conviction or referring to it as a serious violent felony,” Bradford opined.

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