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Garcia v. State

Supreme Court of Indiana

January 21, 2016

ANTONIO GARCIA, Appellant (Defendant below),
v.
STATE OF INDIANA, Appellee (Plaintiff below)

          Appeal from the Marion Superior Court, No. 49G14-1208-FD-054147. The Honorable Jose D. Salinas, Judge. On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 49A05-1402-CR-00061.

         ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: Suzanne St. John, Marion County Public Defener Agency, Indianapolis, Indiana; Heath Y. Johnson, Johnson, Gray & Macabee, Franklin, Indiana.

         ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana, Larry D. Allen, Deputy Attorney General, Stephen R. Creason, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, Indiana.

         David, Justice. Rush, C.J., Dickson and Massa, J.J., concur. Rucker, J., concurs in result only.

          OPINION

         David, Justice.

         In August 2012, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer Phillip Robinett conducted a routine traffic stop. Upon making the stop, he discovered that the driver, Antonio Garcia, was driving without a valid driver's license. Garcia was lawfully placed under arrest. Before Officer Robinett placed Garcia in his police cruiser to be transported to the police station, he conducted a quick pat-down search of Garcia's clothing in order to check for weapons. A cylinder-shaped pill container was found in Garcia's pocket. Officer Robinett opened the container to check what it contained. The content was later confirmed to be a single narcotic pill, which Garcia did not have a valid prescription for.

         Garcia was charged with driving without a license and possession of a controlled substance. At trial, Garcia sought to suppress the admission of the pill container and its contents as the fruit of an unlawful search under Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. It was not disputed that Officer Robinett was free to conduct a warrantless pat-down search of Garcia's person incident to his arrest. Rather, Garcia only challenged the opening of the pill container as being an unreasonable search.

         We disagree with Garcia's contention that opening the pill container during the course of the pat-down search incident to his arrest constituted an unreasonable search. As such, we affirm the trial court's denial of Garcia's motion to suppress and hold that the search of Garcia incident to his arrest was reasonable under Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On August 6, 2012, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer Phillip Robinett observed a vehicle driving without headlights at approximately 9:00 p.m. Officer Robinett turned his police cruiser around to initiate a traffic stop. The vehicle then turned without signaling into a parking spot, even prior to Officer Robinett activating the police cruiser lights and sirens.

         Upon approaching the vehicle, Officer Robinett requested a driver's license from the vehicle driver. The driver, who was later identified as Antonio Garcia, only had an identification card from a foreign country. Officer Robinett confirmed that Garcia did not hold a valid driver's license, and he initiated an arrest for driving without a license.

         Incident to the arrest, Officer Robinett conducted a pat-down search of Garcia to check for weapons. No weapons were found during the search, but a silver cylinder-shaped container was recovered from Garcia's front left pocket. Through his work as a police officer, Officer Robinett had encountered similar containers and recognized that it likely contained either an illegal substance or properly prescribed prescriptions. Upon opening the container, Officer Robinett found a single pill. Garcia was taken into custody, and his vehicle was towed. The cylinder was delivered to the police department property room, and the contents of the container, a single pill, was later submitted to the crime lab for testing. The crime lab report indicated that the pill contained Hydrocodone. Garcia did not have a valid prescription for this medication.

         Garcia was charged with possession of a controlled substance[1] and with operating a vehicle without a driver's license.[2] A bench trial was held. At trial, the defense made a motion to suppress the cylinder container and its contents from being admitted into evidence. The defense asserted that Officer Robinett did not have the authority to open the container, but conceded that the container could have been seized as a search incident to arrest. The State opposed the motion, relying upon U.S. v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 94 S.Ct. 467, 38 L.Ed.2d 427 (1973), to argue that opening the container found on Garcia's person was a permissible warrantless search incident to arrest.

         At trial, Garcia testified that he had been living with his wife, his wife's aunt, and child. Only three days prior to the traffic stop, his wife's aunt had passed away. Garcia explained that the cylinder container was only in his possession because that morning he had been cleaning out the bedroom of his wife's recently deceased Aunt, and he had found the container. He believed it could contain pills, but Garcia never looked inside the container. He had picked it up to keep it out of reach from his young son. Contrary to this account, Officer Robinett testified that after he found the pill inside the container Garcia voluntarily stated that the pill was his " narcotic for pain." (Tr. at 29.) There were no other testifying witnesses.

         After both the State and Defense rested, defense counsel conceded to the fact that Garcia was driving without a license. Then, the trial court returned to the issue of whether the cylinder container should be suppressed, noting that the Robinson case seemed to be " on point." (Tr. at 44.) The defense argued that the contents of the container was not obviously contraband, there was no concern for officer safety, no exigent circumstances, and a warrant could have been obtained if the police wanted to examine the contents of the container.

         The court denied the motion to suppress the container, finding Robinson controlling. Garcia was found guilty of possessing a controlled substance and driving while never receiving a license. Garcia was sentenced to 180 days in Marion County jail with 176 days suspended.

         Garcia appealed, asserting that the search of the container was outside the scope of a permissible search incident to arrest and was unreasonable under Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. The Court of Appeals agreed with Garcia. Garcia v. State, 25 N.E.3d 786 (Ind.Ct.App. 2015). In reaching this decision, the court applied the Litchfield v. State, 824 N.E.2d 356, 361 (Ind. 2005), factors " to the search of the container." Id. at 790. The court reasoned that the degree of suspicion that a criminal violation had occurred was low, both arguments about the degree of intrusion were meritorious, and the need of law enforcement was also low given that there was no concern for officer safety or suspicion of criminal activity. Id. Thus, it was unreasonable to open the container found in Garcia's pocket during a search incident to arrest. Id. at 791. The pill was inadmissible, and Garcia's conviction for class D felony possession of a schedule III controlled substance was reversed. Id.

         This Court granted the State's petition for transfer, thereby vacating the Court of Appeals opinion. Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A). We affirm the trial court's denial of Garcia's motion to suppress. We hold that the search of the container found on Garcia's person was within the scope of a ...


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