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Indiana Supreme Court: Defendant Who Was Both Victim of Crime and Suspect in Unrelated Crime Entitled to Pirtle Warning Prior to Police Asking for Consent to Search Home

by Anthony Accurso

The Supreme Court of Indiana reversed the denial of a suppression motion after finding that the arresting officer failed to advise the defendant of his right to counsel prior to consenting to a search of his home, as is required by Pirtle v. State, 323 N.E.2d 634 (Ind. 1975).

Logansport Police officer Cody Scott was directed to the home of James McCoy by a pedestrian who reported McCoy was being robbed. The tipster alleged that McCoy had an outstanding arrest warrant.

Upon arriving at McCoy’s home, Scott met McCoy, confirmed his identity, and “immediately” placed him under arrest for the outstanding warrant.

Shortly thereafter, Scott was notified by a pedestrian that the theft was a domestic dispute related to a methamphetamine deal that went awry. The robber was identified and apprehended during this time and was returned to McCoy’s house. McCoy established that several items belonging to him were still in the suspect’s vehicle. “The officer then asked McCoy if he would escort him inside the house to document any other missing items,” which McCoy agreed to while still in handcuffs.

Once inside the house, Scott detected the odor of burnt synthetic marijuana and observed several plastic baggies. Based on those observations together with his knowledge of possible drugs in the house, he paused any further investigation and applied for a search warrant for the home. The subsequent search uncovered several items of drug paraphernalia, including a vape cartridge with THC oil, a baggie containing meth, a pipe that tested positive for meth, and an open bag of syringes. After advising him of his Miranda rights, McCoy admitted that the items belonged to him.

The State charged him with numerous drug-related offenses. McCoy filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized in his home, arguing that he was detained and not provided the required Pirtle warning when he consented to the initial search of his home.

The trial court reject McCoy’s motion to suppress, reasoning that the initial entry into his home wasn’t a search – but rather an attempt to identify stolen property. Additionally, the trial court determined that Scott wasn’t looking “for evidence other than the stolen property” when he first entered McCoy’s home.

After the denial of his motion to suppress, McCoy was convicted at trial, and he timely appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, reasoning that (1) because the officer detained McCoy for an unrelated crime (outstanding arrest warrant), McCoy wasn’t entitled to a Pirtle warning and (2) because the initial search was only performed for the purpose of documenting any stolen property, it didn’t constitute an unlawful search under Pirtle. McCoy appealed once more.

The Court noted that the Indiana Bill of Rights and the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution require searches be conducted upon issuance of a search warrant. Suspects may waive the warrant requirement, “but to secure consent from a suspect in custody, police must first inform that suspect of the right to consult with counsel.” Pirtle.

The Court stated that Pirtle is the seminal Indiana case on the constitutional requirement for consent searches and has been settled law in the state for nearly half a century. See Dycus v. State, 108 N.E.3d 301 (Ind. 2018). The Pirtle Court held “that a person who is asked to give consent to search while in police custody is entitled to the presence and advice of counsel prior to making the decision whether to give such consent.” Any evidence obtained without the foregoing warning must be suppressed. Pirtle. A defendant may waive this right, but the State bears the burden of showing “that such waiver was explicit.” Id.

Turning to the present case, the State acknowledged that McCoy was in custody when Scott initially asked to search his home and that McCoy wasn’t provided with the required Pirtle warning. However, the State argued that because Scott viewed McCoy “as the victim of a crime,” not as a suspect, “the constitutional concerns expressed in Pirtle simply do not apply.”

 The Court flatly rejected the State’s argument, explaining that the subjective state of mind of the police when requesting consent to search is not relevant to the police’s obligations under Pirtle. However, even assuming it were, the Court pointed out that Scott “knew McCoy’s house potentially contained drugs,” so Scott’s subjective state of mind didn’t truly view McCoy as solely a victim of a crime.

The Court explained that “Pirtle applies when a person (1) is in custody and (2) is asked by police to consent to a home or vehicle search.” Both of those facts are present in this case. Thus, the Court held that “McCoy was constitutionally entitled to a Pirtle warning before Officer Scott sought consent to search his home.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed McCoy’s convictions and remanded for a new trial. See: McCoy v. State, 193 N.E.3d 387 (Ind. 2022). 

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