Maestas v. State

Decision Date07 May 2018
Docket NumberS-17-0054
Citation416 P.3d 777
Parties Michael James MAESTAS, Appellant (Defendant), v. The STATE of Wyoming, Appellee (Plaintiff).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Representing Appellant: Office of the Public Defender: Diane Lozano, State Public Defender; Tina N. Olson* , Chief Appellate Counsel. Argument by Ms. Olson.

Representing Appellee: Peter K. Michael, Wyoming Attorney General; David L. Delicath, Deputy Attorney General; Christyne Martens, Senior Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Ms. Martens.

Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL , DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.

KAUTZ, Justice.

[¶1] Michael Maestas entered a conditional guilty plea to marijuana possession, and reserved his right to appeal the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence. On appeal, Mr. Maestas argues the evidence resulted from a search which violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. We affirm.


[¶2] This appeal presents only one issue:

Whether the district court erred in denying Mr. Maestas’ motion to suppress.

[¶3] On June 25, 2016, Corporal Bradley Halter from the Green River, Wyoming, police department stopped Mr. Maestas for a traffic violation. Mr. Maestas attempted to walk away from the traffic stop, which prompted Corporal Halter to hand cuff Mr. Maestas and ask him to kneel down. Corporal Halter immediately smelled marijuana emanating from Mr. Maestas’ person, and observed that Mr. Maestas was impaired. Corporal Halter searched Mr. Maestas for weapons and found a small pocket knife in his right front pocket. As Corporal Halter removed the knife from Mr. Maestas’ front right pocket, he felt what he described as a "rock" in Mr. Maestas’ coin pocket. Corporal Halter believed the item was contraband—a controlled substance—and removed it from Mr. Maestas’ coin pocket. Corporal Halter later determined the "rock" was methamphetamine. His continued search of Mr. Maestas also produced a marijuana cigarette and a small baggie of hashish.

[¶4] The State charged Mr. Maestas with possession of methamphetamine, possession of marijuana, interference with a peace officer, failure to produce liability insurance, and operating a vehicle with expired or improper registration. Mr. Maestas filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from Corporal Halter’s search. He claimed the search and seizure that produced the methamphetamine was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. He further claimed the discovery of the marijuana and hashish was fruit of the poisonous tree because Corporal Halter would not have found those items had he not illegally discovered the methamphetamine. Following a hearing, the district court denied the motion to suppress without stating any findings of fact on the record. The district court’s entire ruling consisted of the following statement: "I have listened carefully to the testimony and actually reviewed case law in this case based on what I have heard and what I believe to be the state of the law in this regard, I am denying the Motion to Suppress."

[¶5] Mr. Maestas entered a conditional guilty plea to the possession of marijuana charge and reserved his right to appeal the district court’s order denying his motion to suppress. In exchange for his conditional plea, the State dismissed the other four charges.

[¶6] After Mr. Maestas filed his appeal, we remanded the case to the district court to make factual findings as required by W.R.Cr.P. 12(f), and to state the conclusions of law it reached on those findings. On remand, the district court found and concluded:

Corporal Halter was removing the pocket knife from Defendant’s right front jeans pocket when, without further manipulation, he felt the rock-like object which he immediately suspected was contraband. That the rock-like object was immediately suspected by Corporal Halter to be contraband, combined with Defendant’s prior evasive actions, the odor of marijuana emanating from Defendant’s person and Defendant exhibiting signs of impairment provided sufficient probable cause for Corporal Halter to also seize the suspected contraband from Defendant’s right front jeans coin pocket at that time and without a warrant.
At the time Corporal Halter gained the requisite probable cause to believe the rock-like object was contraband, he was in the process of a protective pat-down search and was also within the lawful bounds of Terry. Corporal Halter had sufficient probable cause to believe the rock-like object was contraband contemporaneously with feeling the rock-like object with the palm side of his hand while removing the pocket knife, based on the totality of the circumstances at the time. Thus, the subsequent seizure of the contraband was lawful.

[¶7] A trial court’s specific findings of fact are presumed to be correct. Shores v. Lindsey, 591 P.2d 895, 899 (Wyo. 1979). We must accept the district court’s factual findings on a motion to suppress "unless they are clearly erroneous or influenced by an incorrect view of the law." Johnson v. State, 2009 WY 104, ¶ 17, 214 P.3d 983, 987 (Wyo. 2009), quoting 27 James Wm. Moore, et. al., Moore’s Federal Practice & Procedure § 641.195[4] (3d ed. 2006). This deference is given to the trial court because it has an opportunity to view and hear the witnesses, and to assess credibility. Shores, 591 P.2d at 899. With respect to the legal analysis and conclusions of the district court, "we review the ultimate determination regarding the constitutionality of a particular search or seizure de novo." Sweets v. State , 2017 WY 22, ¶ 8, 389 P.3d 1214, 1216 (Wyo. 2017) ; Sen v. State, 2013 WY 47, ¶ 25, 301 P.3d 106, 117 (Wyo. 2013) (citing Owens v. State, 2012 WY 14, ¶ 8, 269 P.3d 1093, 1095 (Wyo. 2012) ).

[¶8] Mr. Maestas did not provide this Court with an independent analysis of the propriety of Corporal Halter’s search and seizure under the Wyoming Constitution. "A state constitutional analysis is required unless a party desires to have an issue decided solely under the Federal Constitution." Damato v. State , 2003 WY 13, ¶ 8, 64 P.3d 700, 704 (Wyo. 2003) ; see Vasquez v. State , 990 P.2d 476, 485 (Wyo. 1999). Therefore, our review is limited to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

[¶9] The Fourth Amendment guarantees "people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Mr. Maestas argues Corporal Halter performed an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment because the search exceeded the scope of a reasonable investigatory search under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). Under Terry, a police officer may conduct a warrantless search and seizure if two conditions have been met. First, the officer must have reasonable suspicion that the suspect is involved in criminal activity, and second, the warrantless search is limited to a search for weapons when the purpose of the search is to protect the officers and citizens. Id .

[¶10] Mr. Maestas concedes Corporal Halter had the necessary reasonable suspicion to conduct the initial search. He had reason to stop Mr. Maestas, and then to pat him down to determine if he had weapons. To conduct the search, Corporal Halter patted down the outside of Mr. Maestas’ clothing and limited the search to areas where a weapon could be concealed. Corporal Halter discovered and seized a pocket knife from the right pocket of Mr. Maestas’ pants. Still within the scope of Terry , Corporal Halter reached in Mr. Maestas’ pocket to remove the pocket knife. As he removed the knife, Corporal Halter felt what he describes as a "rock or something similar to that." When Corporal Halter felt the rock-like object he "suspected" and "believed" the object was a controlled substance and removed the object from Mr. Maestas’ coin pocket. Corporal Halter then continued to search Mr. Maestas and found additional controlled substances. Mr. Maestas argues Corporal Halter exceeded the scope of Terry and acted unreasonably when he seized the rock-like object he thought was contraband. Mr. Maestas asserts the evidence must be excluded because Corporal Halter seized items that were not reasonably related in scope to the search for weapons. This argument, however, ignores that an officer may reasonably seize an item he observes in "plain view" or "plain feel" while conducting the more limited Terry search.

[¶11] In Texas v. Brown , 460 U.S. 730, 103 S.Ct. 1535, 75 L.Ed.2d 502 (1983), the U.S. Supreme Court adopted the plain view doctrine. Under this doctrine, an officer may seize an object that is in plain view of the officer if access to the object "has some prior justification under the Fourth Amendment." Id. at 738, 103 S.Ct. at 1541. To exercise this doctrine, it must be "immediately apparent" to the officer that the observed object is "evidence of a crime, contraband, or otherwise subject to seizure." Id. at 741, 103 S.Ct. at 1542 ; Coolidge v. New Hampshire , 403 U.S. 443, 466, 91 S.Ct. 2022, 2038, 29 L.Ed.2d 564 (1971). "Immediately apparent" means the equivalent degree of certainty required for probable cause. Brown, 460 U.S. at 741, 103 S.Ct. at 1542. The Supreme Court explained that the term "immediately apparent" used in prior plain view cases was "an unhappy choice of words, since it can be taken to imply that an unduly high degree of certainty as to the incriminatory character of evidence is necessary ...." Id. at 741, 103 S.Ct. at 1543. The term, however, does not require more than probable cause. When an officer views an object that is in plain view, the officer must contemporaneously believe the object is evidence of a "crime, contraband, or otherwise subject to seizure" and this belief gives the officer the necessary probable cause to seize the object. Id .,see Payton v. New York , 445 U.S. 573, 100 S.Ct. 1371, 63 L.Ed.2d 639 (1980).

[¶12] The plain feel doctrine is similar to the plain view doctrine. The plain feel doctrine permits an officer...

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