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Friday, February 26, 2016

Ind. Decisions - Supreme Court decides one today - reversing trial court in impoundment challenge

In Lamont Wilford v. State of Indiana, an 8-page, 5-0 opinion, Chief Justice Rush writes:

Both the Federal and State Constitutions protect Hoosiers’ private property from unreasonable State intrusion. And so, every inquiry into a warrantless impoundment and inventory search of a vehicle—like any other warrantless search or seizure—ultimately depends on whether those measures were reasonable based on the surrounding facts.

Here, police impounded Defendant’s car from a parking lot because he was arrested for driving while suspended, the registered owner (his sister) was not present, and the car’s windshield and bumper were damaged. Police then began to inventory the car and found a handgun inside, resulting in Defendant being charged with, and ultimately convicted of, carrying a handgun without a license.

Although such discretionary impounds may be permissible as part of law enforcement’s community-caretaking function, they require proof of, among other things, an established depart-mental procedure that authorized the impoundment. Fair v. State, 627 N.E.2d 427, 433 (Ind. 1993). Here, the State presented only the officer’s bare assertion that such a policy existed and that his actions were consistent with the policy—but just as in Fair, there was no evidence of the particulars of that policy. We therefore hold that the State failed to prove an established departmental procedure as Fair requires, and thus failed to prove that the impoundment was reasonable. Consequently, the search that followed was unreasonable and the handgun obtained pursuant to the invalid search was inadmissible. We accordingly reverse Defendant’s handgun conviction. * * *

At a bench trial, the court admitted the handgun over Wilford’s objections and convicted him of carrying a handgun without a license and driving while suspended with a prior suspension—both as Class A misdemeanors. He was sentenced to 365 days, with 357 days suspended to probation, and a $100.00 fine. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding the impoundment and inventory search satisfied Fair’s requirements because the damaged, unsafe car posed a threat to the community or itself and the testimony from the impounding officer (a twenty-three-year IMPD veteran) sufficed as evidence of departmental procedures. Wilford v. State, 31 N.E.3d 1023, 1031–32 (Ind. Ct. App. 2015). We now grant transfer, thus vacating the Court of Appeals opinion, Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A)(2), and reverse Wilford’s handgun conviction. * * *

We reiterate our holding in Fair—impoundment under the community-caretaking function is reasonable only pursuant to established police routine or regulations, and generalized assertions about such a policy are inadequate to make that showing. Since the State failed to prove an established police routine or regulation supporting impoundment under these circumstances, the impoundment and subsequent inventory were unreasonable. We therefore reverse Wilford’s conviction for carrying a handgun without a license.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on February 26, 2016 01:22 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions