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Unlawful Stop? Indiana Drivers Must Signal When Bearing Right

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals clearly knows that the best way to make a splash in a new year is to write an opinion featuring Indiana traffic laws, a motion to suppress based on an “unlawful” stop, and a puppy.

Thanks to the Seventh Circuit’s willingness to give the people what they want, we’re kicking off 2012 with a new FindLaw Pooch of the Week Top Dog. (We can never find enough canine mentions in the appellate cases to actually name a Pooch of the Week, so we’re changing the name of the award.)

Officer Greg Early stopped Jason Smith for failing signal before bearing right. During the stop, Officer Early smelled the odor of burnt marijuana. When Smith failed to produce his driver's license, Early ordered Smith out of the car and proceeded to pat him down. He found what he suspected were ecstasy tablets -- they were later deemed caffeine pills -- and handcuffed Smith.

After learning from Smith that there was a gun in the vehicle, Officer Early had his (FindLaw Top Dog) drug dog search the vehicle. The dog alerted to a plastic bag on the passenger's seat, which contained marijuana, crack cocaine, and a digital scale.

Smith was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, possessing crack cocaine with intent to deliver, and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug transaction. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence, claiming the stop was unlawful because there was no need to signal when bearing right.

After reviewing a map and video footage of the intersection, the district court ruled that Smith was not unlawfully stopped because there was "enough of a turn that Indiana law requires a signal." The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

A traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment if an officer has probable cause to believe that a driver has committed even a minor violation of a traffic law. When an officer mistakenly believes that the law prohibits an act that is perfectly legal, even a good faith belief that the law has been violated will not support the stop.

Indiana law requires that a driver must signal at least 200 feet before turning or changing lanes, but the statute does not define turning. The Seventh Circuit employed the ordinary language of a statute in the absence of a legislative definition, and adopted the Oxford English Dictionary definition of "turning" as "movement about an axis or centre; rotation, revolution." Reasoning that Smith sufficiently rotated so that his movement was a turn under a plain reading of Indiana's statute, the Seventh Circuit ruled that the stop was proper.

The lesson for lawyers here is to challenge an undefined term like "turning" at the district court. The appellate courts merely review the district court for clear error; had Smith's attorney persuaded the district court to define "turn" differently, the court may have ruled differently on the unlawful stop and motion to suppress issues.

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