103 P.3d 699 (Utah 2004), 20020594, State v. Brake

Docket Nº:20020594.
Citation:103 P.3d 699, 2004 UT 95
Opinion Judge:NEHRING, Justice:
Party Name:STATE of Utah, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Angie BRAKE, Defendant and Petitioner.
Attorney:Mark Shurtleff, Att'y Gen., Kenneth A. Bronston, Asst. Att'y Gen., Salt Lake City, for plaintiff. Margaret P. Lindsay, Patrick V. Lindsay, Provo, for defendant.
Case Date:November 12, 2004
Court:Supreme Court of Utah

Page 699

103 P.3d 699 (Utah 2004)

2004 UT 95

STATE of Utah, Plaintiff and Respondent,


Angie BRAKE, Defendant and Petitioner.

No. 20020594.

Supreme Court of Utah.

November 12, 2004

Page 700

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 701

Mark Shurtleff, Att'y Gen., Kenneth A. Bronston, Asst. Att'y Gen., Salt Lake City, for plaintiff.

Margaret P. Lindsay, Patrick V. Lindsay, Provo, for defendant.


NEHRING, Justice:


¶ 1 In this case, we consider the issue of whether a law enforcement officer conducted a constitutional warrantless search of an automobile. The search resulted in the discovery of cocaine and the conditional entry of a guilty plea by Angela Brake to attempted possession of a controlled substance. The trial court denied Ms. Brake's motion to suppress, challenging the lawfulness of the search. The court of appeals affirmed. We reverse.


¶ 2 The legal analysis of search and seizure cases is highly fact dependent. State v. Hansen, 2002 UT 125, ¶ 5, 63 P.3d 650. We therefore begin with a full narration of the facts. On January 29, 2000, Sergeant Neil Castleberry was alone on patrol. He came upon two vehicles, a green sedan and a white truck, stopped in a pullout on West Geneva Road between the Geneva Steel Plant and Utah Lake in Utah County. Sergeant Castleberry pulled in behind the vehicles to determine whether or not they needed assistance.

¶ 3 Sergeant Castleberry first approached the driver's side window of the sedan and spoke with a female who occupied the driver's seat. She told Sergeant Castleberry that she was fifteen years old. She said that the owner of the vehicle was in the back seat. Sergeant Castleberry then attempted to look into the interior of the vehicle. Although his view was obscured by fogged windows, he was able to determine that two people were in the back seat. Sergeant Castleberry then took a step back and opened the rear driver's side door to speak with the individual alleged to be the owner and driver of the vehicle. That person identified herself as Angela Brake, the defendant in this case.

¶ 4 Ms. Brake told Sergeant Castleberry that she, not the fifteen-year-old, had driven the vehicle, and the two had switched places after stopping at the pullout. At some point, she disclosed that the occupants of the vehicles were from Sanpete County, located some distance to the southeast of where the vehicles were parked. Sergeant Castleberry told Ms. Brake that he was concerned for the well-being of a young girl far away from home late at night--it was approximately 11:45 p.m.--in an area known to attract criminal activity. He indicated that she should be getting the fifteen-year-old home soon.

¶ 5 Sergeant Castleberry asked Ms. Brake for identification. She replied that her identification was in her purse and indicated that it was located in the front seat of the car. Ms. Brake offered to retrieve it. Sergeant Castleberry instructed Ms. Brake not to, and instead, he walked around the rear of the vehicle and opened the front passenger side door.

¶ 6 Sergeant Castleberry entered the car and reached for a purse resting on the front passenger seat. The purse he retrieved was not, in fact, Ms. Brake's, but rather belonged to a female occupant of the truck parked behind the sedan. 1 While in the vehicle,

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Sergeant Castleberry noticed a small white bindle resting on the front seat next to the purse. The bindle contained a white powdery substance which later tested positive as cocaine.

¶ 7 Sergeant Castleberry explained that his decision to enter the car and obtain the purse was based on several considerations, all relating to his safety: He wanted to secure the purse himself to "make sure there weren't any weapons," he was concerned about the number of individuals at the scene, a number he only later confirmed to be five, he was situated in an isolated area and it was late at night, and he did not want anyone other than himself to access any area of the vehicle outside of his control.

¶ 8 At the time Sergeant Castleberry entered the sedan, he had not made contact with any occupant of the truck, nor had he undertaken to determine how many people were in the truck. Upon discovering that the purse he had taken from the front seat belonged to an occupant of the truck, he walked toward it, both to investigate further the ownership of the purse and bindle and because he "was concerned to have [his] back toward the truck."

¶ 9 When Ms. Brake later admitted that the cocaine was hers, she was arrested. A subsequent search of the sedan uncovered drug paraphernalia. She was charged with possession of a controlled substance and unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia.

¶ 10 Ms. Brake moved to suppress the cocaine and her incriminating statements. The trial court denied Ms. Brake's motion to suppress the cocaine and granted her motion to suppress the incriminating statements. Addressing only the issue of the lawfulness of the search of the sedan, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court. State v. Brake, 2002 UT App 190, ¶ 1, 51 P.3d 31. We granted certiorari to review the court of appeals' holding that considerations of officer safety rendered Sergeant Castleberry's warrantless search of Ms. Brake's vehicle compatible with the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.


¶ 11 On certiorari, we review the decision of the court of appeals and not that of the district court. Longley v. Leucadia Fin. Corp., 2000 UT 69, ¶ 13, 9 P.3d 762. We conduct that review for correctness, ceding no deference to the court of appeals. Grand County v. Rogers, 2002 UT 25, ¶ 6, 44 P.3d 734. One of the components of the court of appeals's decision that we examine for correctness is the standard of review which it applied to the ruling of the trial court. State v. James, 2000 UT 80, ¶ 8, 13 P.3d 576.

¶ 12 Here, the court of appeals determined that it should apply the standard of review generally applicable to mixed questions of law and fact. A mixed question involves "the application of law to fact or, stated more fully, the determination of whether a given set of facts comes within the reach of a given rule of law." State v. Pena, 869 P.2d 932, 936 (Utah 1994). As understood and applied by the court of appeals in this case, under that standard " '[a] trial court's factual findings are reviewed deferentially under the clearly erroneous standard, and its conclusions of law are reviewed for correctness with some discretion given to the application of the legal standards to the underlying factual findings.' " Brake, 2002 UT App 190 at¶ 11, 51 P.3d 31 (quoting State v. Loya, 2001 UT App 3, ¶ 6, 18 P.3d 1116). Because the standard of review applied by the court of appeals conflicts with our recent pronouncements on the proper standard of review in search and seizure cases, we take this opportunity to explain and clarify this point of law.

¶ 13 The topic of standard of review involving mixed questions of law and fact recalls the metaphor of the judicial pasture used by Chief Justice Zimmerman in Pena, 869 P.2d at 937 (citing Maurice Rosenberg, Judicial Discretion of the Trial Court, Viewed From Above, 22 Syracuse L.Rev. 635 (1971)). The pasture is judicial discretion, and is bounded by fences which reduce or enlarge access to the available crop of discretion based on the nature of the matter which a judge is...

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