Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Indiana Supreme Court Says Police Officer Lacked Reasonable Suspicion to Initiate Traffic Stop

In a 5-0 opinion, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a Putnam County judge's earlier ruling when it handed down a decision today that affects how police officers are allowed to conduct traffic stops when it comes to reasonable suspicion.

The case involved driver, Darrell Keck, who was traveling about 43 mph on a gravel road in Putnam County when Sheriff's Deputy Terry Smith began following him.  Smith witnessed the driver  traveling "down the middle of the roadway" for about a quarter of a mile before he initiated a traffic stop.  The officer also witnessed the driver coming to a full stop before turning left onto a two-way road with no center line.

During the stop, Deputy Smith noticed Keck's eyes were bloodshot and he smelled alcohol on his breath.  He also observed an open case of beer in the front seat with several cans missing.  After Keck admitted drinking three beers that night, Keck conducted three sobriety tests.  Keck failed two of them, so the officer conducted a breath test, which showed a breath-alcohol level of 0.14.  Keck was handcuffed and hauled off to jail.

Keck was charged with two misdemeanors: operating a vehicle while intoxicated and operating over the legal limit. 

Keck's attorney immediately asked the court to suppress the evidence against him, stating that no traffic laws were broken that initiated the stop.  The defendant argued that the road was gravel and had large "chuckholes" that made it impossible to drive in the right-hand area of the roadway "without hitting every hole in the road."

The court granted the defendant's motion:
"Judicial Notice of the condition of the County's roads throughout Putnam County.  Because of the poor road conditions, the Court finds it wholly unreasonable to expect motorists in Putnam County to take a perfectly straight course, on the far right side of a roadway riddled with potholes in the absence of oncoming traffic...Evasive action, including possibly driving left-of-center has become a necessity with the current conditions of our County Roads."
That state appealed that ruling and lost, so they took the case to the Supreme Court and the justices unanimously affirmed the lower court ruling stating that the trial court correctly granted Keck's Motion to Suppress.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court stated that "The Fourth Amendment guarantees: The right of the peole to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
In its ruling, the Court made the following interesting observations:
"Our jurisprudence reflects two types of police encounters that implicate Fourth Amendment protection:  the investigatory stop and the custodial arrest.  An investigatory stop is generally brief in duration and is constitutionally permissible so long as the enforcement officer 'has a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity 'may be afoot.'  The custodial arrest constitutes a greater restriction upon the subject's liberty and requires a commensurately greater justification: probable cause.
The first question we face is whether Deputy Smith had reasonable suspicion to support a brief investigatory stop of Keck's vehicle.  When determining whether an officer had reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop, we consider whether 'the totality of the circumstances' presented 'a particularized and objective basis' for the officer's belief that the subject was engaged in criminal activity.  If an officer observes a driver commit a traffic violation, he has probable cause - and thus also the lesser included reasonable suspicion to stop that driver.  But if the officer stops a driver based on the officer's mistaken belief that the observed conduct constituted an infraction, the officer's suspicion is no longer reasonable, and the stop is therefore unsupported and impermissible...

Evasive action, including possibly driving left-of-center has become a necessity with the current conditions of our County Roads....We must conclude Deputy Smith lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Keck..."

You can read the entire opinion at this link.

Editor's Note:  This is a ruling that Erin Gardner's attorney should take particular note of.

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3 comments:

  1. I agree with the opinion as someone who firmly believes in the constitution as citizen rights, but I fail to see your link with the Gardner story and really as you're obviously supporting Gardner I think it's foolish to do so if you want to do her justice. The evidence that proved the stop unreasonable was provided by the officer. He did not lie or try to sway it in anyway. He described it as he saw it and it turns out the judicial branch said the executive branch was wrong. That's how it is supposed to work. It's obvious the officers' suspicion was proven correct as the suspect blew .14, almost twice the legal limit, but the court determined the stop was unlawful based on the evidence supplied by the POLICE OFFICER which meant any evidence (the .14) didn't matter. I completely agree that this person shouldn't have been stopped in the first place, however the evidence that got the suspect off was really supplied by the police officer that arrested him. Seems to me this was an honest cop that felt he was doing the right thing and regardless of the outcome really did. Even though the stop was deemed improper, the cop might have saved both the suspect and a potential victim. While there was no conviction, I feel very comfortable that the cop took someone who was intoxicated off the road for the night. While the suspect might be a good person and this is a well deserved break, I think he should actually thank the cop for getting him off the road and maybe preventing a tragic life ruining event from happening.

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  2. The driver in the car Gardner was riding in swerved to the left to avoid a parked car, not because he was impaired. The court has ruled that sometimes it is ok to cross a center line. That's what I took away as one similarity anyway.

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  3. I agree. I was recently pulled over for driving left of center and was subject to a 78 min traffic stop and striped searched as well. Was patted down three times by three different Officers , Officers stated the K9 indicated narcotics were in my vehicle but no narcotics found. After the officers didnt find what they were looking for in my car came back to me and said I belive u have something in your pants. I showednhim my growing to prove nothing was there and that still wasnt good enough. Was made to go into a building and take my clothes off. Iam a bi-racial man who drives a forty thousand dollor car and was in asmall town in Odon Indiana (Davies Co.) And was treated like this . I belive Officers use that lame excuse (Driving left of center) to pull u over and violate your constitutional right to gain access of another crime on mere hunches , not probable cause.

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