Meredith v. State, No. 89S04-0808-CR-430.

Docket NºNo. 89S04-0808-CR-430.
Citation906 N.E.2d 867
Case DateMay 28, 2009
CourtSupreme Court of Indiana
906 N.E.2d 867
Kerry L. MEREDITH, Appellant (Defendant Below),
v.
STATE of Indiana, Appellee (Plaintiff Below).
No. 89S04-0808-CR-430.
Supreme Court of Indiana.
May 28, 2009.

[906 N.E.2d 868]

E. Thomas Kemp, Richmond, IN, Attorney for Appellant.

[906 N.E.2d 869]

Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana, George P. Sherman, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, IN, Attorneys for Appellee.

On Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 89A04-0703-CR-148.

DICKSON, Justice.


The defendant, Kerry L. Meredith, appeals his conviction for drug possession, arguing that evidence of drugs found in his vehicle should have been suppressed at trial because (1) police lacked cause to initiate a traffic stop and (2) the subsequent consented-to search of his vehicle violated his rights under Pirtle v. State, 263 Ind. 16, 323 N.E.2d 634 (1975), and Sims v. State, 274 Ind. 495, 413 N.E.2d 556 (1980). The Court of Appeals reversed. Meredith v. State, 878 N.E.2d 453 (Ind.Ct. App.2007), reh'g granted, 886 N.E.2d 79 (Ind.Ct.App.2008). We granted transfer and now affirm the conviction, concluding that police had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant based on the unlawful display of his temporary license plate in his rear window, and that the defendant was not in custody at the time he consented to the police search of the vehicle.

Just after midnight on an October morning in 2005, Richmond Police Officer John Lackey pulled his cruiser to a red traffic light behind a vehicle driven by the defendant. Unable to spot a license plate in the usual location, or anywhere else, Officer Lackey activated his spotlight and then observed a paper plate in the rear window, but still could not see an expiration date because of the vehicle's tinted windows. Officer Lackey initiated a traffic stop and, upon approaching the vehicle, saw the tag was valid. Officer Lackey spoke with the defendant. Prompted by his concern that the vehicle's interior smelled of alcohol, the defendant's eyes were red and bloodshot, and the defendant was excessively nervous, Officer Lackey asked the defendant to perform a breath test. The test came up negative. Officer Lackey then asked for permission to search the vehicle, and the defendant consented. Cocaine was found.

The State charged the defendant with possession of cocaine. Before trial, the defendant moved to suppress the evidence, and the trial court denied that motion following a hearing.1 At trial the court overruled the defendant's objection to introduction of the evidence, and a jury returned a guilty verdict. We granted transfer.

In reviewing the trial court's ruling on the admissibility of evidence from an allegedly illegal search, an appellate court does not reweigh the evidence but defers to the trial court's factual determinations unless clearly erroneous, views conflicting evidence most favorably to the ruling, and considers afresh any legal question of the constitutionality of a search or seizure. Membres v. State, 889 N.E.2d 265, 268 (Ind.2008).

1. The Traffic Stop

The defendant argues that the initial stop violated his Fourth Amendment rights, as the officer's stated justification for the stop—an alleged improper display of a temporary plate—was invalid. Because a traffic stop is a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, police may not initiate a stop for any conceivable reason, but must possess at least reasonable suspicion that a traffic law has been violated or that other criminal activity is taking place. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 1772, 135 L.Ed.2d 89,

906 N.E.2d 870

95 (1996); Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 1396, 59 L.Ed.2d 660, 667 (1979); Finger v. State, 799 N.E.2d 528, 532 (Ind.2003). An officer's decision to stop a vehicle is valid so long as his on-the-spot evaluation reasonably suggests that lawbreaking occurred. See State v. Washington, 898 N.E.2d 1200, 1205 (Ind.2008). This discretion, however, does not extend to an officer's mistaken belief about what constitutes a violation as a matter of law. Ransom v. State, 741 N.E.2d 419, 422 (Ind.Ct.App.2000), trans. denied.

Officer Lackey testified that he stopped the defendant's car solely because he suspected the vehicle was being operated in violation of Indiana's laws regarding the proper display of license plates. The question before us is thus whether the defendant's placement of his temporary plate in the vehicle's back window amounted to a traffic infraction. If it did, Officer Lackey had reasonable suspicion to execute the traffic stop.

This Court has previously considered whether placing a license plate in a vehicle's rear window contravenes Indiana's statutes governing proper display and illumination, thus justifying a traffic stop. See Merritt v. State, 829 N.E.2d 472 (Ind. 2005). In Merritt, this Court looked at Indiana Code § 9-18-2-26, which governs the display of license plates:

(a) License plates shall be displayed as follows:

(1) For a motorcycle, trailer, semitrailer, or recreational vehicle, upon the rear of the vehicle.

(2) For a tractor or dump truck, upon the front of the vehicle.

(3) For every other vehicle, upon the rear of the vehicle.

(b) A license plate shall be securely fastened, in a horizontal position, to the vehicle for which the plate is issued:

(1) to prevent the license plate from swinging;

(2) at a height of at least twelve (12) inches from the ground, measuring from the bottom of the license plate;

(3) in a place and position that are clearly visible;

(4) maintained free from foreign materials and in a condition to be clearly legible; and

(5) not obstructed or obscured by tires, bumpers, accessories, or other opaque objects.

(c) The bureau may adopt rules the bureau considers advisable to enforce the proper mounting and securing of license plates on vehicles consistent with this chapter.

Ind.Code § 9-18-2-26. This Court also looked at the application of Indiana Code § 9-19-6-4(e), which requires illumination of license plates:

(e) Either a tail lamp or a separate lamp must be placed and constructed so as to illuminate the rear registration plate with a white light and make the plate clearly legible from a distance of fifty (50) feet to the rear. A tail lamp or tail lamps, together with a separate lamp for illuminating the rear registration plate, must be wired so as to be lighted whenever the head lamps or auxiliary driving lamps are lighted.

Id. § 9-19-6-4(e).

We found these provisions interacted to "require that the license plate be displayed upon the rear of the vehicle, securely fastened, in a horizontal position, and also be illuminated at night by a separate white light so as to be clearly legible from fifty feet." Merritt, 829 N.E.2d at 476. And because "the defendant's license plate inserted

906 N.E.2d 871

inside the back window of his automobile was not displayed appropriately, ... the officer's stop was proper, and ... the trial court did not err in admitting evidence resulting from the stop." Id. at 475.

This case, unlike Merritt, involves the display and illumination of plates before a vehicle is permanently registered, which circumstance invokes other statutory provisions. As we noted in Merritt, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles is authorized to issue various temporary registration permits and license plates—a temporary license plate that is valid for thirty days (§ 9-18-2-49), a thirty-one-day interim license plate (§ 9-18-26-10), a thirty-day temporary registration permit (§ 9-18-7-1), and a ninety-day temporary registration permit (§ 9-18-7-1.5)—and is also authorized to promulgate rules specifying the requirements for the proper display of these temporary tags. Id. at 475 n. 14.

The defendant suggests his vehicle was displaying a thirty-day permit authorized by § 9-18-7-1,2 but the record undermines this position. Officer Lackey specifically described the displayed item as a "[t]emporary paper plate" of the type issued from dealer to purchaser and valid for thirty-one days. Appellant's App'x at 22, 29-30. Viewing this disputed evidence, as we must, in the light most favorable to the trial court's decision, implicates § 9-18-26-10, which governs "interim license plates."3

906 N.E.2d 872

The defendant argues that this section provides no detailed guidance for displaying interim plates. He points out that, although the Bureau is authorized to write rules governing the display of such permits, it has done so only for ninety-day temporary registration permits.4 From this, he argues that the requirements listed in Merritt have no bearing on the temporary plate at issue here, and that nothing required that it be viewable and illuminated at night, or that the expiration date be viewable from any particular distance. Appellant's Br. at 8-10. He thus urges that, while Officer Lackey's suspicion was justifiably raised when he saw no license plate on the vehicle, once he saw the valid interim plate in the rear window, he could not reasonably suspect the defendant was in violation of any statutory provision.

The State concedes that rulemaking authority has not been exercised here, except to specify that a vehicle required to display both front and rear permanent plates need only...

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136 practice notes
  • State v. Barry, 21-013
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • October 29, 2021
    ...to cooperate can be inculpatory when "an undertaking to help or cooperate necessarily bespeaks criminal involvement"); Meredith v. State, 906 N.E.2d 867, 874 (Ind. 2009) (including whether officers suggest defendant cooperate in nonexhaustive list of factors to determine custody for statuto......
  • United States v. Miranda-Sotolongo, No. 14–2753
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • June 28, 2016
    ...paper registration tag exactly where he did—where a normal license plate goes and not in the rear window. See Meredith v. State , 906 N.E.2d 867, 872–73 (Ind. 2009). Miranda–Sotolongo is correct in theory, then, that if the only basis for the stop had been the officer's suspicion that the d......
  • Jacobs v. State, No. 49A02–1601–CR–19.
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • November 7, 2016
    ...determinations unless clearly erroneous. Hansbrough v. State, 49 N.E.3d 1112, 1114–15 (Ind.Ct.App.2016) (citing Meredith v. State, 906 N.E.2d 867, 869 (Ind.2009) ), trans. denied. “We view conflicting evidence most favorable to the ruling, and we consider ‘afresh any legal question of the c......
  • Ogburn v. State, No. 82A01–1509–CR–1546.
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • April 18, 2016
    ...trial court's decision, we do not reweigh the evidence and consider conflicting evidence most favorably to the ruling. Meredith v. State, 906 N.E.2d 867, 869 (Ind.2009). We defer to the trial court's factual determinations unless clearly erroneous, id., but the constitutionality of the sear......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
136 cases
  • State v. Barry, 21-013
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • October 29, 2021
    ...to cooperate can be inculpatory when "an undertaking to help or cooperate necessarily bespeaks criminal involvement"); Meredith v. State, 906 N.E.2d 867, 874 (Ind. 2009) (including whether officers suggest defendant cooperate in nonexhaustive list of factors to determine custody for statuto......
  • United States v. Miranda-Sotolongo, No. 14–2753
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • June 28, 2016
    ...paper registration tag exactly where he did—where a normal license plate goes and not in the rear window. See Meredith v. State , 906 N.E.2d 867, 872–73 (Ind. 2009). Miranda–Sotolongo is correct in theory, then, that if the only basis for the stop had been the officer's suspicion that the d......
  • Jacobs v. State, No. 49A02–1601–CR–19.
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • November 7, 2016
    ...determinations unless clearly erroneous. Hansbrough v. State, 49 N.E.3d 1112, 1114–15 (Ind.Ct.App.2016) (citing Meredith v. State, 906 N.E.2d 867, 869 (Ind.2009) ), trans. denied. “We view conflicting evidence most favorable to the ruling, and we consider ‘afresh any legal question of the c......
  • Ogburn v. State, No. 82A01–1509–CR–1546.
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • April 18, 2016
    ...trial court's decision, we do not reweigh the evidence and consider conflicting evidence most favorably to the ruling. Meredith v. State, 906 N.E.2d 867, 869 (Ind.2009). We defer to the trial court's factual determinations unless clearly erroneous, id., but the constitutionality of the sear......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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