Combs v. State

Decision Date03 June 2021
Docket NumberSupreme Court Case No. 20S-CR-616
Citation168 N.E.3d 985
Parties James COMBS, Appellant (Defendant below), v. STATE of Indiana, Appellee (Plaintiff below).
CourtIndiana Supreme Court

On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 19A-CR-1991

Massa, Justice.

James Combs was driving his company van when he swerved off the road and demolished a utility box. He then drove to his nearby home. The responding officer found Combs just as he parked in his front driveway. The officer ultimately took Combs to the hospital for a blood test. After they left, other officers towed the van as evidence of leaving the scene of an accident. Before the tow, they conducted an inventory search, which revealed pills in a bag under the driver's seat.

Combs was charged with several offenses, including four based on the pills. After he unsuccessfully moved to suppress the pills, a jury convicted him of all but one charge. On appeal, a panel concluded the pills should have been suppressed. Finding the van's seizure and search lawful, we affirm the trial court.

Facts and Procedural History

In the late afternoon of February 11, 2017, Combs was driving north on Lafayette Avenue in Lebanon, Indiana. He was in a yellow Ford van that prominently advertised the company he ran with his wife—Combs Gold & Stuff, a pawn shop and gold-buying business. In addition to the name, the van included the company's phone number, address, and slogans, making it "a mobile billboard." Tr. Vol. II, p.62.

While speeding, Combs came upon stopped traffic near the Lebanon Street Department. He swerved to his right to avoid hitting the vehicle in front of him, driving off the road and demolishing a utility box. Witnesses called 911 to report the crash. Combs exited the van, viewed the scene, took pictures, and rummaged around under the driver's seat. He then drove away, over the objections of witnesses, to his home in Clear Vista Estates, a nearby neighborhood.

Officer James Koontz of the Lebanon Police Department quickly arrived at the crash scene. He spoke with a witness, who described the van as "yellow" with "Combs on the side" and pointed him toward Clear Vista. Tr. Vol. III, p.21. As he drove through the neighborhood, a family who saw the van pointed Officer Koontz in its direction. The van had also left a "a fluid trail" that helped guide Officer Koontz. Tr. Vol. II, p.9. Officer Koontz spotted a van that matched the witness’ description in a driveway and pulled in behind it as Combs was stepping out of it. After exiting his vehicle, Officer Koontz "could see the side of the van." Id. , p.10. He observed "[t]he front driver's side tire was flat and [there was] a clear fluid trail from the roadway, up the driveway, to the van." Id. The grill and bumper were also damaged.

Officer Koontz began speaking with Combs, who quickly admitted to the crash and leaving the scene. By then, witnesses to the crash had arrived. One witness informed Officer Koontz that Combs may have been trying to hide something in the van. Officer Koontz asked Combs if he could look inside the van, and Combs initially consented. But after Officer Koontz refused to allow Combs to hand him items from the van, Combs withdrew his consent, and there was no search. Based on witness statements and his interactions with Combs, Officer Koontz believed Combs was intoxicated. He administered three field sobriety tests, and Combs failed two of them (although his breathalyzer test was negative for alcohol).

By this point, other Lebanon officers had arrived at Combs’ home, including Lieutenant Rich Mount. He asked Combs for permission to look inside the van, and Combs consented to a search under the seats. Officer Koontz found a bag under the driver's seat, but Combs did not consent to him opening it, so the search stopped. Combs agreed to a blood test, so Officer Koontz took him to a hospital. The remaining officers decided to tow the van as evidence of Combs leaving the crash, so they inventoried it. Under the driver's seat, they found a black bag that contained, among other things, various pills that were later determined to be alprazolam

, hydrocodone, and oxycodone (both 7.5- and 10-milligram doses). The officers seized the pills but turned over the bag and its other contents to Combs’ wife before the van was towed.

The State ultimately charged Combs with nine counts, the first four based on the pills. Counts I through III—possession of a narcotic drug as a Level 3 felony in violation of Indiana Code sections 35-48-4-6(a) and (d)(2) —were based on the hydrocodone, 10-milligram oxycodone, and 7.5-milligram oxycodone pills, respectively. Count IV—possession of a controlled substance as a Level 6 felony in violation of Indiana Code section 35-48-4-7(a) —was based on the alprazolam. Count VIII was leaving the scene of an accident as a Class B misdemeanor in violation of Indiana Code sections 9-26-1-1.1(a)(4) and (b).1

Combs unsuccessfully moved to suppress the pills under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution.2 The case proceeded to trial, where a jury found Combs guilty of all counts except Count IV. Combs appealed, arguing, among other things, that the trial court erroneously admitted the pills.

Our Court of Appeals found that Combs’ federal constitutional rights were violated. Combs v. State , 150 N.E.3d 266 (Ind. Ct. App. 2020), trans. granted , 157 N.E.3d 527. It concluded "the towing and impound search ... were merely pretextual means by which officers could search the [van] to find incriminating evidence." Id. at 275. Because "Combs admitted that he was going to contact law enforcement regarding the accident ... it [was] not clear why the officers needed the van to solve the crime." Id. at 276. The "indicia of pretext" meant "the search ... was unreasonable" and "impermissible under the open view and plain view doctrines and the Fourth Amendment." Id. Because the pills should have been suppressed, the panel reversed Combs’ convictions for Counts I, II, and III. Id. at 277. It declined to address his state constitutional argument, id. at 274 n.5, and rejected his other arguments, id. at 281–82.

The State petitioned for transfer, which we granted.3 See Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A).

Standard of Review

Generally, "[t]rial courts have broad discretion to admit or exclude evidence," and we review for abuse of that discretion. Satterfield v. State , 33 N.E.3d 344, 352 (Ind. 2015). However, "when a challenge to an evidentiary ruling is based ‘on the constitutionality of the search or seizure of evidence, it raises a question of law that we review de novo. " Johnson v. State , 157 N.E.3d 1199, 1203 (Ind. 2020) (quoting Thomas v. State , 81 N.E.3d 621, 624 (Ind. 2017) ), cert. denied , ––– U.S. ––––, ––– S. Ct. ––––, ––– L.Ed.2d –––– (2021), No. 20-7612, 2021 WL 2044617 (U.S. May 24, 2021).

Discussion and Decision

Combs asserts that the police violated his Fourth Amendment rights by seizing and searching his van without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment—incorporated against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment—protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const. amend. IV ; Berry v. State , 704 N.E.2d 462, 464–65 (Ind. 1998). Because it "generally requires warrants for searches and seizures," Johnson , 157 N.E.3d at 1203, "a warrantless search or seizure is per se unreasonable, and the State bears the burden to show that one of the ‘well-delineated exceptions’ to the warrant requirement applies," Osborne v.State , 63 N.E.3d 329, 331 (Ind. 2016) (quoting Katz v. United States , 389 U.S. 347, 357, 88 S.Ct. 507, 19 L.Ed.2d 576 (1967) ).

When police seize and then search a vehicle, "both measures must be reasonable—that is, executed under a valid warrant or a recognized exception to the warrant requirement." Wilford v. State , 50 N.E.3d 371, 374 (Ind. 2016). One exception to the warrant requirement arises when an incriminating object is in plain view. Another arises when police inventory a seized object. Because both exceptions apply here, Combs’ Fourth Amendment rights were not violated.

I. The police lawfully seized Combs’ van as evidence under the Fourth Amendment's plain view exception.

Police, acting under a valid warrant or Fourth Amendment exception, can seize a vehicle as evidence of a crime.4 See Trent v. Wade , 776 F.3d 368, 387 (5th Cir. 2015) ("[V]ehicles also may be seized if ... they are contraband in plain view of an officer."); People v. Zamora , 695 P.2d 292, 296–97 (Colo. 1985) (car lawfully seized as instrumentality of a crime); State v. Mitchell , 300 N.C. 305, 266 S.E.2d 605, 608 (1980) ("A car reasonably believed to be the fruit, instrumentality or evidence of a crime can be seized whenever found in plain view."); State v. Lewis , 22 Ohio St. 2d 125, 258 N.E.2d 445, 447–49 (1970) (car lawfully seized as instrumentality of a crime). When this occurs, the seizure must be reviewed like any other. See, e.g. , United States v. Sanchez , 612 F.3d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 2010) (applying plain view exception to seized motorcycle).

The plain view exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement allows police to warrantlessly seize an object if they "are lawfully in a position from which to view the object, if its incriminating character is immediately apparent, and if [police] have a lawful right of access to the object." Warner v. State , 773 N.E.2d 239, 245 (Ind. 2002) (citing Horton v. California , 496 U.S. 128, 135–37, 110 S.Ct. 2301, 110 L.Ed.2d 112 (1990) ). It "stands for the premise that objects which are in plain view of an officer who rightfully occupies a particular location can be seized without a warrant and are admissible as evidence." Sloane v. State , 686 N.E.2d 1287, 1291 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997), trans. denied , 690 N.E.2d 1189. Seizures under this exception are "scrupulously subjected to Fourth Amendment inquiry." Soldal v. Cook County , 506 U.S. 56, 66, 113...

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