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Sams v. State

Court of Appeals of Indiana

February 21, 2017

Otis Sams, Jr., Appellant-Defendant,
v.
State of Indiana, Appellee-Plaintiff

         Appeal from the Putnam Circuit Court The Honorable Matthew L. Headley, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 67C01-1502-F3-32

          Attorney for Appellant Joel C. Wieneke Wieneke Law Office, LLC Brooklyn, Indiana

          Attorneys for Appellee Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General of Indiana Lyubov Gore Deputy Attorney General Indianapolis, Indiana

          Mathias, Judge.

         [¶1] Otis Sams ("Sams") was convicted in Putnam Circuit Court of Level 4 felony possession of methamphetamine. Sams appeals, challenging the warrantless search and seizure of the evidence against him. We conclude that the State did not carry its burden to show that the inventory search of Sams's truck was sufficiently regulated; therefore, we reverse.[1]

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2] February 20, 2015, was a snowy night in Greencastle, Indiana. Late that evening or early the next morning, Sams had recently finished work on a home remodeling job and was headed for home, outside of town, driving a family member's truck. Sams had no car of his own because his driver's license had been suspended, but Sams drove his family member's truck anyway.[2] Before leaving town, Sams stopped at a fast-food restaurant and purchased his supper to go, eating as he drove.

         [¶3] At the same time, a sworn officer and a trainee reserve officer of the Greencastle Police Department ("GPD"), Christopher Jones ("Jones") and Justin Tate ("Tate"), were patrolling Greencastle's streets in their squad car. When Sams's truck passed the officers going in the opposite direction, Tate noticed the truck had no working taillights. "That is an infraction in the [s]tate of Indiana, " as Jones later noted. Tr. p. 188. The officers turned their car around and pulled Sams over near the intersection of Jackson Street and Shadowlawn Avenue.

         [¶4] The officers approached Sams and asked for his driver's license and the truck's registration. Sams was the truck's only occupant. The truck was in poor condition and smelled like freshly cooked hamburger. Next to Sams on the passenger seat and center console sat a fast-food bag and a hamburger box. As he continued to eat his hamburger, Sams produced the vehicle's registration but, rather than a driver's license, handed the officers a state-issued identification card. The officers took Sams's papers back to their squad car to process them. There, after several minutes, the officers discovered that Sams was driving on a suspended license for the second time in ten years, a misdemeanor criminal offense.

         [¶5] With this information, the officers were faced with the question of what to do with a truck stopped at night on a public road that was cold and slick in a snowstorm, without a licensed driver to drive it away. Jones decided that conditions required Sams's truck to be impounded and towed. "[From t]he position of the vehicle[, we] couldn't leave it where it was. [We c]ouldn't . . . spend time waiting on someone to drive [in] from out of town [to claim the truck]. So we impounded the vehicle." Tr. p. 9.

         [¶6] Jones chose to issue Sams a summons for the misdemeanor rather than arrest him. The officers returned to the truck to tell Sams the truck would be towed and to give him the summons. Sams said he would have someone pick him up from a nearby gas station. The officers patted Sams down and told him he was free to leave. Sams left the truck and walked to the gas station to wait.

         [¶7] Around this time, a second reserve officer and a second sworn officer, Kyle Lee ("Lee"), arrived on the scene, bringing the total number of officers to four. Jones and Lee began to inventory the contents of the truck before the tow truck arrived. Jones and Lee began their inventorying process on opposite sides of the truck's cab. Several personal items were scattered about the cab, including an orange gas can, a pair of gloves, an ashtray, a snow scraper, and, we infer, some tools Sams used in his renovation work.

         [¶8] From the driver's side, Jones noticed the fast-food bag, previously next to Sams in the front of the cab with the hamburger box, now sat folded up on the floorboard behind the passenger seat in the rear of the cab. Jones immediately became suspicious. Jones told Lee, "[H]ey[, ] check that bag. Just make sure nothing's in it." Tr. p. 13. Lee opened the bag. Inside the bag was the hamburger box. Inside the hamburger box were lettuce, ketchup, and more than twenty-five grams of methamphetamine.

         [¶9] The officers walked to the nearby gas station and found Sams there, still waiting to be picked up. The officers arrested Sams without incident. The officers then wrote up their complete inventory of the truck: "Misc tools." Ex. Vol., State's Hr'g Ex. 6. At some point "after [the officers] found what [they] found [they] took photos just to document. [They] had to place everything back in the general location where [they] found it just for documentation purposes." Tr. p. 219. Three pictures were taken: two of the inside of the bag and box, one of the outside of the bag, not very neatly folded, [3] and what appears to be a part of the orange gas can and the handle of the snow scraper at the edges of the frame. Ex. Vol., State's Trial Exs. 1-3; see Tr. p. 178. The truck was towed shortly thereafter, and it is unknown what became of it or its contents. See Tr. p. 14.

         [¶10] On February 23, 2015, Sams was charged with Class A misdemeanor driving while license suspended and Level 3 felony possession of methamphetamine, later reduced to Level 4 felony possession. On November 2, 2015, Sams moved to suppress the methamphetamine. At a hearing on November 25, 2015, the court heard evidence and argument and ordered briefing. The court denied Sams's motion on January 6, 2016. Sams sought certification for interlocutory appeal, which the court denied on February 1, 2016, in an order issued on February 4, 2016.

         [¶11] Sams's case was tried to a Putnam County jury on February 3, 2016. The methamphetamine seized from the truck was admitted over Sams's objection. The jury returned guilty verdicts on both the misdemeanor driving while suspended and the felony possession charges. On March 10, 2016, Sams was sentenced to time already served for the misdemeanor, and to ten years, nine and one-half executed, in the Indiana Department of Correction for the felony.

         [¶12] This appeal followed. Sams challenges the admission of the methamphetamine as the inadmissible fruit of an unlawful search under the Fourth Amendment. He raises no separate argument under our state constitution.

         Standard of Review

         [¶13] Our review of denials of motions to suppress, when following a trial at which the challenged evidence was admitted, is properly a review of the trial court's decision to admit the evidence. Carpenter v. State, 18 N.E.3d 998, 1001 (Ind. 2014). We review the trial court's ruling on admissibility for abuse of discretion, reversing only if the ruling is clearly against the logic and effect of the facts, and the error effects substantial rights. Id. The constitutionality of a search or seizure is a pure question of law we review de novo. Id. Because the search in this case was done without a warrant, the burden of showing its constitutionality was on the State. Berry v. State, 967 N.E.2d 87, 90 (Ind.Ct.App. 2012).

         Discussion and Decision

         I. Sams Timely Appealed

         [¶14] The State suggests that Sams's appeal "may be untimely." Appellee's Br. p. 6. However, the State's reliance on Smith v. Deem, 834 N.E.2d 1100 (Ind.Ct.App. 2005) (period for filing notice of appeal begins to run when parties have actual notice of final judgment), trans. denied, has been mooted by intervening amendment to the Indiana Rules of Appellate Procedure. App. R. 9(A)(1) (period for filing notice of appeal begins to run when final judgment entered into chronological case summary); Bryan H. Babb & Curtis T. Jones, Developments in Indiana Appellate Procedure: Rule Amendments, Remarkable Case Law, and Court Guidance for Appellate Practitioners, 44 Ind. L. Rev. 1033, 1033-34 (2011) (describing 2010 amendment putting App. R. 9(A)(1) in its current form). Under the current rule, there is no question that Sams timely appealed. We therefore proceed to the merits of Sams's claim.

         II. The Inventory Search of the Fast-Food Bag and Box Was Not Sufficiently Regulated by Standardized Procedures and Was Pretextual

         [¶15] The touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness. Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006). When police are investigating crime, it is usually unreasonable for them to search a person's car without probable cause to think they will find evidence relevant to their investigation there. See Myers v. State, 839 N.E.2d 1146, 1150-51 (Ind. 2005). However, when police have taken lawful custody of a person's car, [4] whether to protect the public, see Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973) (first recognizing community caretaking doctrine), or because otherwise authorized by state law, Fair v. State, 627 N.E.2d 427, 431 (Ind. 1993), they are responsible for the car and anything inside it. In these cases, it is reasonable for police to search the car and make an inventory of anything inside it for administrative reasons completely unconnected to criminal investigation: to protect the person's property and to protect themselves, as well as anyone who ...


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