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Smith v. State

Court of Appeals of Indiana

August 7, 2019

Carl Smith, Appellant-Defendant,
v.
State of Indiana, Appellee-Plaintiff.

          Appeal from the Marion Superior Court No. 49G08-1705-CM-17562. The Honorable Amy Jones, Judge.

          Attorney for Appellant Timothy J. O'Connor O'Connor & Auersch Indianapolis, Indiana

          Attorneys for Appellee Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General of Indiana Caroline G. Templeton Deputy Attorney General Indianapolis, Indiana

          BRADFORD, JUDGE.

         Case Summary

         [¶1] In May of 2017, a vehicle being driven by Carl Smith was stopped by police after committing multiple traffic infractions. After it was determined that Smith's driver's license was suspended, officers decided to have the vehicle towed. Prior to being towed, officers searched Smith's vehicle and discovered a handgun, for which Smith did not have a license to carry. In October of 2018, Smith was convicted of Class A misdemeanor carrying a handgun without a license and Class A infraction driving while suspended. Smith does not contest his conviction for driving while suspended but contends that the purported inventory search was not conducted pursuant to established departmental routine or regulation, violating his rights under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Finding his contention dispositive and agreeing with it, we affirm his conviction for driving while suspended and reverse his conviction for carrying a handgun without a license.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2] On May 10, 2017, a vehicle being driven by Smith was pulled over by Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer Aaron Trotter for committing multiple traffic infractions. After Smith admitted to not having a driver's license, Officer Trotter requested Smith's name and date of birth. Smith replied that he did not have a date of birth and asked for Officer Trotter's supervisor. Once Officer Trotter's sergeant arrived, Smith was removed from the vehicle and placed in handcuffs. Officer Trotter eventually obtained a document containing Smith's name and social security number. After identifying Smith by searching the police database, a cross-search of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles's records revealed that Smith's driver's license was suspended. While Officer Trotter began filling out paperwork to arrest Smith for driving while suspended and failure to identify, two other officers searched the vehicle, discovering a handgun in the glove box. At some point, an acquaintance of Smith arrived on scene with a valid driver's license and was permitted by the officers to drive Smith's vehicle home.

         [¶3] On May 12, 2017, the State charged Smith with Class A misdemeanor carrying a handgun without a license, Class A misdemeanor driving while suspended, and Class C misdemeanor refusal to identify. On October 10, 2018, a bench trial was held, at which Smith moved to suppress evidence discovered during the search, claiming that the search was unconstitutional. The State solely argued that the search was a valid inventory search. The trial court denied Smith's motion and found him guilty of Class A misdemeanor carrying a handgun without a license and Class A infraction driving while suspended. The trial court sentenced Smith to 365 days with 357 days suspended to probation.

         Discussion and Decision

         [¶4] Smith contends that the trial court erroneously admitted evidence obtained during the search of his car because said search violated his rights pursuant to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Specifically, Smith contends that the State failed to establish that the impoundment was done pursuant to the police department's established routine or regulation. The admission of evidence is a matter entrusted to the sound discretion of the trial court, and we will only reverse its ruling if it is clearly against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances. Kelly v. State, 997 N.E.2d 1045, 1050 (Ind. 2013) (internal quotations omitted). However, we review the trial court's ruling on the constitutionality of a search or seizure de novo. Campos v. State, 885 N.E.2d 590, 596 (Ind. 2008).

         [¶5] The Fourth Amendment guarantees people the right "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures[.]" "[W]hen police impound a vehicle and inventory its contents, they effect a search and seizure, and both measures must be reasonable-that is, executed under a valid warrant or a recognized exception to the warrant requirement." Wilford v. State, 50 N.E.3d 371, 374 (Ind. 2016). A well-recognized exception to the warrant requirement is a valid inventory search. Gibson v. State, 733 N.E.2d 945, 956 (Ind.Ct.App. 2000). "The rationale for the inventory exception is three-fold: 1) protection of private property in police custody; 2) protection of police against claims of lost or stolen property; and 3) protection of police from possible danger." Id. Thus, the inventory search serves an administrative rather than investigatory purpose. Wilford, 50 N.E.3d at 375. The State bears the burden of proving that the inventory search was reasonable. Id. The threshold question in determining the validity of an inventory search is proper impoundment, and impoundment is reasonable if authorized by statute or the police's discretionary community-caretaking function. Id. at 374-75. Because neither party contends that the inventory search was authorized by statute, we focus on whether the search was reasonable pursuant to the police's community-caretaking function.

         [¶6] The Indiana Supreme Court has stated that "police may discharge their caretaking function whenever circumstances compel it, but also that a decision to impound must be exercised according to standard criteria and on the basis of something other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity." Id. at 375 (internal citations omitted). The rule that the standardized criteria or established routine must exist as a precondition to a valid inventory search is designed to ensure that an inventory search is not a pretext "for general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence." Fair v. State, 627 N.E.2d 427, 435 (Ind. 1993) (quoting Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1, 4 (1990)). Thus, in order for the State to prevail on the question of whether an impoundment was warranted in terms of the community-caretaking function and was not pretextual, it must establish that (1) consistent with objective standards of sound policing, the officer believed that the vehicle posed a threat of harm to the community or was itself imperiled, and (2) the officer's decision to impound the vehicle adhered to established departmental routine or regulation. Wilford, 50 N.E.3d at 376.

         [¶7] We conclude that the State failed to establish that Officer Trotter's decision to impound Smith's vehicle adhered to established departmental routine or regulation. While we do not require evidence of the department's written procedure, we do require more than conclusory testimony from an officer. Id. An officer's testimony provides adequate evidence of the department's impoundment procedure if "it outlines the department's standard impound procedure and specifically describes how the decision to impound adhered to departmental policy or procedure-as opposed to an officer's generalized assertion." Id. at 377 (internal quotations omitted). Here, Officer Trotter testified that the inventory search of Smith's vehicle was pursuant to a "typical tow policy." Tr. Vol. II p. 112. Officer Trotter also testified that it would be typical for him to request a tow of a vehicle when there is no licensed driver present. Officer Trotter's testimony regarding impoundment is at best a generalized assertion that the impoundment and search were conducted pursuant to the department's procedure; however, it fails to specially describe how the impoundment decision adhered to the department's procedure. Moreover, the State acknowledges that "there was not sufficient ...


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