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Friday, December 18, 2009

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court decides two today

Thomas A. Armfield v. State of Indiana, a 10-page, 5-0 opinion, Justice Sullivan writes:

This case requires us to resolve the issue of when an officer has reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop after a routine status check of a license plate reveals that the driver's license of the registered owner of the vehicle is suspended. We provide the analytical framework to re-solve the issue presented here and in another case we decide today, Holly v. State, – N.E.2d –, No. 49S02-0811-CR-591, slip op. (Ind. Dec. 18, 2009). * * *

Armfield appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the stop was valid and that the trial court properly admitted the evidence resulting from the stop because “knowledge that the registered owner of the vehicle has a suspended license is enough to constitute rea-sonable suspicion for an officer to take the minimal action of initiating a traffic stop.” Armfield v. State, 894 N.E.2d 195, 198 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008).2 Armfield petitioned for, and we granted, transfer, Armfield v. State, 898 N.E.2d 1229 (Ind. 2008) (table), in order to resolve a split in the Court of Appeals on the issue of whether a police officer's knowledge that the registered owner of a vehicle has a suspended license constitutes reasonable suspicion to initiate an investigatory traffic stop. * * *

The issue presented here is whether a police officer is required to verify that the driver of the vehicle matches the physical description of the registered owner obtained from the license plate check before there is reasonable suspicion to initiate a Terry stop.

Two strands of case law from the Court of Appeals address this question. One strand stands for the proposition that a police officer must verify that the driver of the vehicle matches the description of the owner obtained from the license plate check in order to have reasonable suspicion to initiate a Terry stop. In Wilkinson v. State, 743 N.E.2d 1267 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), trans. denied, the court held that the stop of a vehicle whose license plate indicated the owner was a habitual traffic violator was proper where the officer could see the driver and determine that the driver matched the description of the owner. * * *

The second strand of Court of Appeals case law holds a police officer's knowledge that the registered owner of a vehicle has a suspended license constitutes reasonable suspicion to initiate a Terry stop without matching the driver with the owner's physical description. In Kenworthy v. State, 738 N.E.2d 329 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000), trans. denied, the court concluded that the officer had “reasonable suspicion to stop and approach the truck to investigate” the identity of the driver because he had personal knowledge of the registered owner's license suspension, was aware that the vehicle he observed belonged to the registered owner, and confirmed his suspicions through a radio check. * * *

We hold that an officer has reasonable suspicion to initiate a Terry stop when (1) the of-ficer knows that the registered owner of a vehicle has a suspended license and (2) the officer is unaware of any evidence or circumstances which indicate that the owner is not the driver of the vehicle. This rule does not require officers to match the physical description of the registered owner from the license plate check to the driver of the vehicle before initiating a Terry stop. We agree with the State that “requiring the officer to verify the driver of the vehicle strikes against basic principles of safety [because it] puts the onus on the officer to maneuver himself into a po-sition to clearly observe the driver in the midst of traffic.” In addition, we acknowledge the difficulty that the driver verification requirement would impose on officers during late night hours and in situations where car windows are darkly tinted, as was the case here.

To the extent that prior opinions of the Court of Appeals are inconsistent with our hold-ing today, we disapprove those decisions. * * *

Under the two-prong test that we adopt today, we conclude that Officer Schmidt had rea-sonable suspicion to conduct a Terry stop of Armfield's vehicle because (1) he had knowledge that Armfield was the registered owner of the vehicle and that Armfield had a lifetime suspen-sion of driving privileges and (2) he was unaware of any evidence or circumstances which indi-cated that Armfield was not the driver of the vehicle. Officer Schmidt also acted properly after initiating the stop when he first ascertained the registered owner's name, address, and physical description before he approached the vehicle and then verified that the name of the driver matched that of the registered owner.

In Damen Holly v. State of Indiana, a 12-page, 3-2 opinion, Justice Rucker writes:
Damen Holly was stopped by police after a license plate check showed he was driving a vehicle owned by a driver whose license was suspended. Even though Holly himself was not the owner, the stop was permissible under our decision today in Armfield v. State, No. 29S02-0811-CR-590, ___ N.E.2d ___ (Ind. Dec. 18, 2009). However, the subsequent search of the vehicle was conducted absent reasonable suspicion and thus violated Holly's Fourth Amendment rights. * * *

Our companion case, Armfield, which we also decide today, provides the analytical framework to resolve this issue. We held in Armfield that “an officer has reasonable suspicion to initiate a Terry stop when (1) the officer knows that the registered owner of a vehicle has a suspended license and (2) the officer is unaware of any evidence or circumstances which indicate that the owner is not the driver of the vehicle.”

Here, Officer Ross's license plate check indicated that the vehicle traveling in front of him was registered to an African-American female named Terry Sumler and that Sumler's driver's license was suspended. He testified at trial that the information about the license suspension “led me to stop the vehicle.” Because it was close to midnight and the vehicle was traveling in front of him for the entire time before the stop, Officer Ross did not have a chance to observe the driver before initiating the stop. Under these circumstances, we hold that Officer Ross had reasonable suspicion to initiate an investigatory Terry stop of Sumler's vehicle. However this does not end our inquiry. * * *

In this case Officer Ross had no justification to pursue an investigatory stop that extended to a request to see Holly's identification. The evidence collected as a result of the stop, including the marijuana seized during the search and Holly's subsequent admission that he owned the marijuana, was therefore inadmissible under the Fourth Amendment. The trial court thus erred in admitting the evidence. Accordingly we reverse the judgment of the trial court on this issue.

The judgment of the trial court is reversed and this cause is remanded.

Dickson and Boehm, JJ., concur.
Shepard, C.J., dissents with separate opinion.
Sullivan, J., dissents with separate opinion in which Shepard, J., joins. [that concludes] Applying the analytical framework contained in the caretaking cases, I have little difficulty concluding that Officer Ross's request for Holly's identification was reasonable and did not violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution or Article I, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. The officer's initial contact with Holly was to determine whether he was the regis-tered owner. His further request of Holly's license and his check on the status of that license constituted a very limited further encroachment upon any privacy interest protected by the Fourth Amendment.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 18, 2009 02:19 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions