The United States Constitution, as well as the Indiana Constitution, protect against “illegal searches and seizures.” This means that a law enforcement officer cannot simply search your person or home, or seize your belongings, unless certain requirements are met. In Indiana, seizures of personal property must be done in accordance with Ind. Code 34-24-1. In a nutshell, property cannot be seized unless it is an incident to an arrest, search, or administrative inspection. Property cannot be seized simply because it looks like a crime may have been committed or looks suspicious. Instead, as the Indiana Court of Appeals reiterated in Lewis v. State1, there must be “a nexus between [seized property] and some sort of criminal activity.” This key case to protect your rights against an illegal search of your property is the focus of this blog post.
In Lewis, the Defendant was pulled over for a routine traffic stop after a police officer observed a vehicle swerving, and its license plate was barely visible. After being pulled over, the Defendant told the officer that he had just purchased the vehicle and was currently in the process of switching the title of the vehicle. Furthermore, the Defendant informed the officer of every step he had taken to change the title with the BMV. The officer then asked Defendant if Defendant wanted to sit in the officer’s car with the officer while he ran the plates on the Defendant’s vehicle, as well as his driver’s license. Both the vehicle’s plate and the Defendant’s license checked out, and the officer informed the Defendant he would let him go with a warning. After finishing up the documentation for the warning, the officer asked Defendant if he had ever been in trouble for drugs. The Defendant responded that there “might have been something in Detroit.” The officer then proceeded to ask the Defendant if there were any narcotics in the car, and the Defendant paused for a slight moment before saying “no.” The officer asked the Defendant if he could conduct a K-9 search of the vehicle in which case the Defendant again said “no.” The officer proceeded to conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle, ultimately finding two scales and 77,000 in cash, but no drugs. The Defendant denied knowing about the money. The $77,000 was seized and transferred to the government. Defendant appealed.
On appeal, the Defendant argued that the seizure was illegal because the State failed to show that there was a connection between the money and any crime. The Court of Appeals agreed with the Defendant. In reversing the decision in favor of the Defendant, the Court noted that there was “no evidence whatsoever that a crime occurred.” The Court goes on to point out that the State even admitted that it is unclear what the crime is, but nonetheless seized the money anyway because “there must have been a crime committed.” The Court believed that argument “goes several steps too far” than what was intended by the statute to protect this constitutional right. In concluding, the Court noted that the State “wholly failed” to prove that the cash was in any way related to a crime, and therefore was unlawful pursuant to the statute and unconstitutional. Due to the State’s premature seizure of money, and the complete lack of evidence, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision and ordered the State reimburse Defendant the amount seized.
This case highlights the importance of staying up to date in the ever-changing legal landscape. Knowing the status of developments in the law is the key to avoiding criminal liability, including the overlap with civil law, such as here where the defendant has had money taken on a criminal theory, as well as being an engaged citizen in our participatory system of government. This blog post on a key new case was written by attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. who handle criminal defense cases and appeals of criminal convictions throughout the state. This blog is written for educational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.