Attorney for Appellant Attorney for Appellee
John L. Tompkins Steve Carter
Indianapolis, IN Attorney General of Indiana
Appeal from the Marion Superior Court, No. 49G20-0112CF-225279
The Honorable William Young, Judge
On Petition To Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 49A02-0207-CR-548
June 24, 2004
Defendant drove on to an auto repair shop's parking lot, got out of
his vehicle, and requested an oil change and the installation of an auto
alarm. Shortly thereafter uniformed officers in marked police vehicles pulled on to
the garage parking lot. When asked, defendant admitted to Kelley that he
had an invalid drivers license.
Farrell testified that he arrived shortly thereafter, at which time the officers on
the scene had arrested the defendant for driving while suspended and were placing
him in handcuffs. Farrell read defendant his Miranda warnings. Farrell checked
the vehicles registration and discovered that it was registered to defendant.
Two uniformed officers began to search the vehicle, one from the drivers side
and the other from the passengers side. During this cursory search, the
officer on the drivers side failed to discover any contraband; the officer on
the passengers side of the vehicle was still engaged in the search.
Farrell testified that he had specific knowledge that defendant kept his cocaine underneath
the steering column or just below the steering column. Farrell joined the
search and immediately found what turned out to be cocaine.
The State charged defendant with dealing in cocaine, a Class A felony, possession
of cocaine, a Class C felony, and driving while suspended, a Class A
misdemeanor. Defendant moved to suppress the cocaine found in his car.
The trial court denied the motion. On interlocutory appeal, the Indiana Court
of Appeals upheld the denial of defendants motion to suppress, finding that the
search of defendants car did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights. Black
v. State, 795 N.E.2d 1061, 1066 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003), transfer granted, 804
N.E.2d 760 (Ind. 2003). Judge Riley dissented.
The majority opinion of the Court of Appeals and Judge Rileys dissent debate
the availability to the State in this case of an automobile exception to
the Fourth Amendments warrant requirement. Because a new decision by the United
States Supreme court controls the outcome of this case, we do not address
Subsequent to our taking jurisdiction and holding oral argument in this case, the
United States Supreme Court decided Thornton v. United States, 124 S.Ct. 2127, 2004
U.S. LEXIS 3681 (May 24, 2004). We find Thornton dispositive and hold
that the present circumstances constitute a constitutionally valid search incident to a lawful
A search incident to arrest is a well-recognized exception to the Fourth Amendments
warrant requirement. Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113 (1998); New York v.
Quarles, 467 U.S. 649 (1984); United States v. Edwards, 415 U.S. 800 (1974).
In Belton, the Supreme Court held that once a police officer has
made a lawful custodial arrest of an occupant of an automobile, the Fourth
Amendment allows the officer to search the passenger compartment of that vehicle as
a contemporaneous incident of arrest. 453 U.S. at 460. Unresolved after Belton
was whether its rule was limited to situations where the officer makes contact
with the occupant while the occupant is inside the of all, or whether
it applies as well when the officer first makes contact with the person
arrested after the latter has stepped out of his vehicle.
In Thornton, the court concluded that Belton governed even when a police officer
does not make contact until the person arrested has left the vehicle.
The court explained:
In all relevant aspects, the arrest of a suspect who is next to a vehicle presents identical concerns regarding officer safety and the destruction of evidence as the arrest of one who is inside the vehicle. An officer may search a suspects vehicle under Belton only if the suspect is arrested. A custodial arrest is fluid and the danger to the police officer flows from the fact of the arrest, and its attendant proximity, stress, and uncertainty, The stress is no less merely because the arrestee exited his car before the officer initiated contact, nor is an arrestee less likely to attempt to lunge for a weapon or to destroy evidence if he is outside of but still in control of, the vehicle. In either case, the officer faces a highly volatile situation. It would make little sense to apply two different rules to what is at bottom, the same situation.
124 S.Ct. 2127, 2131, 2004 U.S. LEXIS 3681 at *12-13 (citations omitted, emphasis appears in original opinion).
In this case, officers had probable cause to arrest the defendant lawfully because he was operating a motor vehicle while his license was suspended. Defendant admitted to having an invalid license and does not challenge the legality of his arrest. The subsequent search of defendant's vehicle was a contemporaneous incident of his arrest and clearly permissible under Thornton.