State v. Laster

Decision Date19 October 2021
Docket NumberDA 19-0645
Citation497 P.3d 224,406 Mont. 60
Parties STATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Bruce Leon LASTER, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

For Appellant: Chad Wright, Appellate Defender, Haley Connell Jackson, Assistant Appellate Defender, Helena, Montana

For Appellee: Austin Knudsen, Montana Attorney General, Roy Brown, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana, Scott D. Twito, Yellowstone County Attorney, Ingrid A. Rosenquist, Deputy County Attorney, Billings, Montana

Justice Dirk M. Sandefur delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 Defendant and Appellant Bruce Leon Laster (Laster) appeals the August 2019 judgment of the Montana Thirteenth Judicial Court, Yellowstone County, denying his motion to suppress illegal drug evidence seized as a result of a protective pat-down search for weapons and in a subsequent search of his vehicle. The restated issues are:

1. Whether the District Court erroneously concluded that the police officer lawfully subjected Laster to a pat-down search for weapons?
2. Whether the District Court erroneously concluded that the exclusionary rule did not apply to the illegal drug evidence seized in the warrantless pat-down and vehicle searches at issue?
3. Whether the District Court erroneously failed to grant defendant sufficient credit for time-served?

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶2 On February 18, 2019, at about 11:00 p.m., a man later identified as Laster was driving with a passenger in a 2007 Cadillac DTS on a residential street in Billings, Montana, when his car became stuck in the snow. A neighborhood resident who had been watching the car called 911 and reported that there was a Cadillac stuck in the snow in front of his house and that "these guys look[ ] very, very spooky," with one of them "really, really spooky looking." The caller said that the car "kept going up and down the block like they were casing out vehicles and ... houses" and that stolen vehicles had been dumped in the neighborhood in the past. As the call progressed, the caller advised that a white Ford pickup had just arrived and that an occupant was attempting to attach a chain to the Cadillac to pull it out of the snow. The caller further stated that the men in both vehicles looked to him like "wanna-be gang bangers." The caller thus repeatedly requested that two or three officers immediately respond.

¶3 Upon receipt of the resulting dispatch report that a "vehicle casing the area" was now "stuck in a snowdrift," a Billings police officer responded to the scene. Upon arrival, the officer saw the subject vehicle, a purple Cadillac DTS, stuck in a snow drift "on the north side of the street," with the vehicle "on the sidewalk" and "partially hanging out in the street." He saw a truck on the street behind it trying to pull it out of the drift and the apparent driver of the vehicle (Laster) standing outside the vehicle watching. In response to a prosecutor's question at a subsequent hearing as to whether "there [had] been any [recent] issues with crime in that neighborhood," the officer answered in the affirmative—"predominantly[ ] stolen vehicles and drug related issues." He testified further that he immediately recognized the stuck Cadillac as the same vehicle often parked in the past at the Vegas Motel, a place known to police as a situs of frequent illegal drug activity in Yellowstone County. The officer testified he had previously seen "the vehicle" at the Vegas Motel "numerous times" and that it was "kind of suspicious" because "people [were] walking up to it all the time" and then "walking away." However, the officer testified unequivocally that, as he pulled up to the scene of the stuck Cadillac on the night in question, he activated his patrol car top lights and stopped because it "posed a traffic hazard."

¶4 Upon exiting his patrol car, the officer approached Laster on foot, then accompanied by two other officers who had just separately arrived on scene. The officer later testified to the following sequence of events, inter alia :

Direct Examination
[Prosecutor]: ... What happened when you immediately approached [Laster]?
[Officer]: ... I informed him that he was stuck and he agreed. ... I [then] asked him for identification[ ] and ... he said he did not have any. Then, I just had a verbal exchange of information that he ... gave me.
...
[Prosecutor]: ... [O]nce he gave you the verbal of his name [(Steve Laster)], what did you say or do?
[Officer]: ... I asked him, "I'll do a pat search on you because we're in close proximity." He was like, "Okay." I did the pat search without any problems.[1]
[Prosecutor]: And when you did the pat search, did you feel anything?
[Officer]: Yes. ... I believe it might [have] been in his jacket or pants pocket ... It felt like the outside of a pipe or a loker.
[Prosecutor]: ... [W]ere you concerned that it could possibly have been a weapon?
[Officer]: It could have been a knife.
[Prosecutor]: ... [D]id you ask [Laster] what it was? ...
[Officer]: Yes.
[Prosecutor]: What did he say?
[Officer]: I believe [he said] it was cigarettes and then a lighter .... [but] it did not feel like either of those items.[2]
[Prosecutor]: ... [B]ased on that, did you request anything of him?
[Officer]: ... I asked him if I could remove the object.
[Prosecutor]: ... [W]hat was his response?
[Officer]: Yes.
[Prosecutor]: [W]hat was it[ ] when you removed it?
[Officer]: A [methamphetamine] loker with residue.
...
[Prosecutor]: ... [W]hat was the purpose of the pat down search in this situation?
[Officer]: An officer safety issue.
...
[Prosecutor]: [W]as it important for you to know who you were dealing with and whether they potentially had any weapons on them as well?
[Officer]: Yes, [b]ecause I could be on scene for a long period of time.
Cross Examination
...
[D. Counsel]: ... Officer ... when you asked the defendant if he had anything in his pockets, were you interrogating him?
[Officer]: No.
[D. Counsel]: Do you normally read people their Miranda rights when doing a pat down search?
[Officer]: No.
[D. Counsel]: Why not?
[Officer]: It's not relevant at the time. I want to make sure they don't reach for anything and make sure we're both safe.
[D. Counsel]: So, at the time you're doing a pat search, it is for officer safety, not as part of seeking out a criminal activity?
[Officer]: Yes.
Redirect Examination
[Prosecutor]: So at the time you're doing a pat down search, it is for officer safety, not as part of seeking out a criminal activity?
[Officer]: Yes.
Re-Cross Examination
... [D. Counsel]: ... When you did the pat down search, you thought he had a weapon?
[Officer]: I don't know if he had a weapon. That's why I do pat searches.
[D. Counsel]: But you don't do pat searches on everybody?
[Officer]: No.
[D. Counsel]: Unless you believe they may have a weapon or something dangerous in their pocket, is that correct?
[Officer]: No. If I'm going to be in close proximity to somebody, I'll do a pat search. If I'm going to be with [a person for] a period of time, I'll do a pat search. If it's a brief moment to tell a trespasser to leave an area, I will not.

¶5 Although the record is unclear as to precisely when the checks occurred in the sequence of events after the initial contact with Laster, one of the officers ran a criminal database check on the name "Steve Laster" which yielded a photograph of someone who did not appear to be the man at the scene. But a license plate check ran by one of the other officers indicated that the owner of the purple Cadillac was in fact a "Bruce Laster." The third officer advised the first that he was aware that there were two Laster brothers and that they had used each other's names in the past.

¶6 In any event, after seizing the loker (small drug pipe) with suspected methamphetamine residue as a result of the pat-down search, the first officer walked Laster back to the officer's patrol car, and after a brief discussion, asked him for consent to search the Cadillac. Laster verbally consented, and then read and signed a written consent to search form provided by the officer.3 The officer searched the vehicle and found a scale commonly used in illegal drug distribution activity, multiple small plastic bags, a pipe, and a small plastic bag containing a white crystalline substance that appeared to be methamphetamine. The officer then placed Laster under arrest and delivered him to the Yellowstone County Detention Center for booking on the charges of criminal possession of dangerous drugs (CPDD) and criminal possession of drug paraphernalia (CPDP). At the detention center following his arrest, Laster admitted that he was in fact Bruce Laster, rather than Steve Laster as originally stated on the street. Upon confirming Laster's identity and ascertaining that he was on probation or parole, the officer contacted the Adult Probation and Parole Division (AP&P) of the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC) and learned for the first time that Laster was the subject of an outstanding AP&P warrant for his arrest.4

¶7 After the State formally charged him with CPDD (methamphetamine), CPDP, and obstructing a peace officer, Laster filed a motion for suppression of the evidence seized as a result of the pat-down and vehicle searches. The District Court denied the motion, however, on the stated grounds that:

(1) the officer had sufficient particularized suspicion to stop and engage Laster under the community caretaker doctrine;
(2) the ensuing pat-down search was a lawful "officer safety" search incident to the Community Caretaker stop based on the "the time of night," the "high crime area of town," the report of the occupant(s) apparently "casing" of the neighborhood; and that Laster "could have had weapons on him or in his vehicle";
(3) the community caretaker stop ripened into a criminal investigatory stop based on the discovery and seizure of the pipe with suspected
...

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5 cases
  • State v. Zeimer
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • 24 de maio de 2022
    ...108, ¶¶ 40-42, 289 Mont. 1, 961 P.2d 75 ; Sharp , 217 Mont. at 46, 702 P.2d at 963. See also State v. Laster , 2021 MT 269, ¶ 14, 406 Mont. 60, 497 P.3d 224 ("investigative stop cannot permissibly ripen into new or broader particularized suspicion of criminal activity unless sufficient part......
  • State v. Zeimer
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • 24 de maio de 2022
    ... ... State v ... Case , 2007 MT 161, ¶ 34, 338 Mont. 87, 162 P.3d ... 849; Carlson , ¶ 21; Hulse v. Mont ... Dep't of Justice Motor Veh. Div. , 1998 MT 108, ... ¶¶ 40-42, 289 Mont. 1, 961 P.2d 75; Sharp , ... 217 Mont. at 46, 702 P.2d at 963. See also State v ... Laster , 2021 MT 269, ¶ 14, 406 Mont. 60, 497 P.3d ... 224 ("investigative stop cannot permissibly ripen into ... new or broader particularized suspicion of criminal activity ... unless sufficient particularized suspicion of criminal ... activity existed at the start and continues to exist prior to ... ...
  • State v. Mefford
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • 27 de setembro de 2022
    ... ... tainted evidence would have inevitably been discovered ... through lawful means." Ellis , ¶ 49. The ... critical question under the exception is whether the ... untainted evidence "was the result of the exploitation ... of the initial illegal search[]." State v ... Laster , 2021 MT 269, ¶45, 406 Mont. 60, 497 P.3d ... 224 (alterations omitted) ...          ¶48 ... Here, the only additional evidence is that Mefford's ... cellmate reported to a detective that, while incarcerated in ... the Montana State Prison, Mefford admitted that he engaged in ... ...
  • State v. Mefford
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • 27 de setembro de 2022
    ...the untainted evidence "was the result of the exploitation of the initial illegal search[ ]." State v. Laster , 2021 MT 269, ¶ 45, 406 Mont. 60, 497 P.3d 224 (alterations omitted).¶48 Here, the only additional evidence is that Mefford's cellmate reported to a detective that, while incarcera......
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