Shorter v. State

Decision Date20 April 2020
Docket NumberCourt of Appeals Case No. 18A-CR-2957
Citation144 N.E.3d 829
Parties Kurtis L. SHORTER, Appellant-Defendant, v. STATE of Indiana, Appellee-Plaintiff.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

Attorney for Appellant: Amy D. Griner, Mishawaka, Indiana

Attorneys for Appellee: Curtis T. Hill, Jr., Attorney General of Indiana, Courtney L. Staton, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, Indiana

Bradford, Chief Judge.

Case Summary

[1] On November 12, 2018, Kurtis L. Shorter was sentenced to an aggregate thirty-year sentence after he was convicted of Level 4 felony unlawful possession of a handgun by a serious violent felon ("SVF"), Class A misdemeanor possession of a synthetic drug, and Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana and found to be a habitual offender. On appeal, he challenges the admission of certain evidence and the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain his convictions. He also argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to dismiss the habitual-offender enhancement. We affirm.

Facts and Procedural History

[2] While on patrol at approximately 2:30 a.m. on October 22, 2016, Elkhart Sheriff's Department Officer Robert Smith's attention was drawn to a green Pontiac G6. While following behind the vehicle, Officer Smith observed as the vehicle "kind of veer[ed] from the south to the north" and "the tires of the vehicle, the right tires, went off the road onto the gravel portion across the white line." Tr. Vol. III p. 56. Officer Smith further observed the vehicle make a turn and, although the driver "used their turn signal," the driver did not satisfy the statutory requirement that a driver engage her turn signal two hundred feet before turning. Tr. Vol. III p. 56. Officer Smith initiated a traffic stop.

[3] At the time of the traffic stop, there were two individuals, one female and the other male, inside the vehicle. Haven Chamberlain was driving and Shorter was sitting in the front passenger seat. Given that it was dark outside at the time of the traffic stop, Officer Smith used a flashlight to aid his ability to see the occupants of and the general vicinity in and around the vehicle.

[4] As Officer Smith approached the vehicle, he began "smelling a chemical odor that [he] recognized to be a synthetic drug." Tr. Vol. III p. 59. The smell got "stronger as [he] got closer" to the vehicle. Tr. Vol. III p. 59. The smell "was emitting from the vehicle ... through [the] driver's window." Tr. Vol. III p. 59.

[5] After smelling the odor of a synthetic drug emanating from the vehicle, Officer Smith returned to his vehicle and "radioed for a backup unit." Tr. Vol. III p. 60. When he believed the backup unit was in the general vicinity and would arrive soon, Officer Smith approached the vehicle for a second time and requested that Chamberlain exit the vehicle. Officer Smith did not notice anything at Chamberlain's feet either of the first two times he approached the vehicle. When the assisting officer arrived a minute or two later, the assisting officer asked Shorter to step out of the vehicle and stand near where Officer Smith and Chamberlain were standing.

[6] Due to the smell of synthetic drugs emanating from the vehicle, Officer Smith and the assisting officer searched the vehicle. Officer Smith began by searching the area around the front driver's-side door. He found "a loose greenish substance in the door panel and in the center console" that, based on his training and experience as an officer, he believed to be synthetic drugs. Tr. Vol. III p. 68. He also found a backpack "on the driver's floorboard" that had not been present when Chamberlain exited the vehicle. Tr. Vol. III p. 68. Officer Smith unzipped the backpack and looked inside, finding "men's cologne, doo-rag, a digital scale, some more synthetic marijuana, err, I'm sorry, synthetic drug, marijuana, a Ruger .380 semi-automatic pistol ... a man's belt and there was mail belonging to Kurtis Shorter in there as well." Tr. Vol. III p. 69. The mail, which included legal documents, had Shorter's name and address "printed on the envelopes and on the paperwork." Tr. Vol. III p. 69. Officer Smith field tested and weighed the marijuana, with the test confirming the presence of 24.8 grams of marijuana. Officer Smith also weighed the synthetic drugs, confirming the presence of 97.3 grams of synthetic drugs. The marijuana and synthetic drugs were stored "in a large gallon size baggie and inside that there was [sic] smaller baggies, like sandwich baggies with the substance in them." Tr. Vol. III p. 70.

[7] On October 26, 2016, the State charged Shorter with Level 5 felony possession of a handgun without a license with a prior conviction, Class A misdemeanor possession of a synthetic drug or synthetic drug lookalike substance, Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Shorter subsequently filed a motion to suppress "any and all items seized from the car" during the traffic stop. Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 33. On June 12, 2017, the State amended the Class A misdemeanor carrying a handgun without a license charge to a charge of Level 4 felony SVF. The State also alleged Shorter to be a habitual offender. On July 18, 2017, Shorter filed a motion to dismiss the habitual-offender enhancement.

[8] The trial court conducted a hearing on July 20, 2017, during which it heard argument relating to both Shorter's motion to suppress and motion to dismiss the habitual-offender enhancement. On August 24, 2017, the trial court issued a written order denying Shorter's motion to suppress. The trial court denied Shorter's motion to dismiss the habitual-offender enhancement on September 21, 2017.

[9] Following a jury trial, on January 25, 2018, the jury returned a verdict of guilty for Class A misdemeanor possession of a synthetic drug or synthetic drug lookalike substance. However, the jury was unable to reach a verdict on the remaining counts. On October 10, 2018, following a retrial, Shorter was found guilty of the remaining counts. In a bifurcated portion of the trial, the jury also found Shorter to be an SVF as alleged in the amended firearm-possession charge. In the final trifurcated portion of the trial, the jury found Shorter to be a habitual offender. On November 12, 2018, the trial court sentenced Shorter to an aggregate thirty-year sentence.

Discussion and Decision
I. Admission of Evidence

[10] Shorter contends that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting evidence recovered following what he claims was an unjustified traffic stop. "In cases such as this one, where the defendant does not appeal the denial of a motion to suppress and the evidence is admitted over the defendant's objection at trial, we frame the issue as whether the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the evidence at trial." Kyles v. State , 888 N.E.2d 809, 812 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008).

The admission or exclusion of evidence is entrusted to the discretion of the trial court. Farris v. State , 818 N.E.2d 63, 67 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004). We will reverse a trial court's decision only for an abuse of discretion. Id. We will consider the conflicting evidence most favorable to the trial court's ruling and any uncontested evidence favorable to the defendant. Taylor v. State , 891 N.E.2d 155, 158 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008). An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court's decision is clearly against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances before the court or it misinterprets the law. Id.

Collins v. State , 966 N.E.2d 96, 104 (Ind. Ct. App. 2012). "Moreover, the trial court's ruling will be upheld if it is sustainable on any legal theory supported by the record, even if the trial court did not use that theory." Rush v. State , 881 N.E.2d 46, 50 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008) (citing Gonser v. State , 843 N.E.2d 947, 950 (Ind. Ct. App. 2006) ).

[11] In arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the challenged evidence, Shorter claims that the challenged evidence was discovered in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution. The Fourth Amendment provides as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

U.S. CONST. amend. IV.1 "The fundamental purpose of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is to protect the legitimate expectations of privacy that citizens possess in their persons, their homes, and their belongings." Taylor v. State , 842 N.E.2d 327, 330 (Ind. 2006).

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, 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).

Meredith v. State , 906 N.E.2d 867, 869–70 (Ind. 2009).

[12] "Notwithstanding the textual similarity of Article 1, § 11 of the Indiana Constitution to that of the federal Fourth Amendment, Section 11 is interpreted separately and independently from Fourth Amendment jurisprudence." Washington , 898 N.E.2d at 1205–06 (citing Mitchell v. State , 745 N.E.2d 775, 786 (Ind. 2001) ).

The Indiana Constitution may protect searches that the federal Constitution does not. State v. Moore , 796 N.E.2d 764, 767 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003). Section 11 should be applied to protect people from

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