State v. Marsolek, 20210041

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Dakota
Writing for the CourtTufte, Justice.
PartiesState of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee v. Dylan Marsolek, Defendant and Appellant
Docket Number20210041
Decision Date30 September 2021

2021 ND 175

State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee
v.

Dylan Marsolek, Defendant and Appellant

No. 20210041

Supreme Court of North Dakota

September 30, 2021


Appeal from the District Court of Barnes County, Southeast Judicial District, the Honorable Jay A. Schmitz, Judge.

Tonya Duffy, State's Attorney, Valley City, N.D., for plaintiff and appellee; submitted on brief.

Mary E. Depuydt, Wishek, N.D., for defendant and appellant.

OPINION

Tufte, Justice.

[¶1] Dylan Marsolek appeals from a criminal judgment entered after he conditionally pled guilty to possession of controlled substances and drug paraphernalia. Marsolek, a passenger in a vehicle involved in a traffic stop, argues he was unlawfully seized because the officers prolonged the traffic stop beyond the time necessary to issue a traffic citation. He argues the evidence resulting from the traffic stop should be excluded because the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to expand the scope of the traffic stop into a drug investigation. We affirm, concluding that the district court did not err in denying Marsolek's motion to suppress evidence because the officer had reasonable suspicion to justify prolonging the traffic stop.

I

[¶2] On April 16, 2020, Barnes County Sheriff's Deputy Nathan Morten initiated a traffic stop after observing a vehicle with an obstructed windshield and an unrestrained back seat passenger. The vehicle did not pull over immediately, but this was later determined to be the result of Deputy Morten's malfunctioning lights. The driver pulled over after hearing the deputy's siren. After the vehicle stopped, Deputy Morten saw the driver reach over to the passenger side like "he was sticking something underneath the passenger seat." Deputy Morten then approached the vehicle and spoke to the driver, Howard Larson. Marsolek was in the front passenger seat, and Esther Cruz was in the backseat. Upon Deputy Morten's request, Larson gave Deputy Morten his driver's license and insurance card. Deputy Morten asked Larson about their travels. Larson stated they were driving back to Jamestown from Fargo. Because they were on County Road 22, well off the interstate highway route typically travelled between the two cities, Deputy Morten asked what they were doing in the area. Larson responded "nothing, just sightseeing." Deputy Morten then requested identification from the passengers. Larson spoke for them, stating they did not have their IDs. They provided their names and dates of birth instead.

[¶3] Deputy Morten returned to his vehicle and attempted to run the occupants' names with dispatch. It was then he discovered his radio also was not working. Using his cell phone, he called dispatch and was informed that Larson's license was suspended and that he had drug-related convictions on his record. Because of Deputy Morten's malfunctioning equipment and his inability to communicate over the radio, additional units were sent to assist him. The additional officers began arriving on the scene just as Deputy Morten was ending his phone call with dispatch.

[¶4] Deputy Morten returned to Larson's vehicle to inform him of his suspended license. As the deputy was speaking to Larson, two highway patrol troopers who had responded to the scene also began conversing with both of the passengers. Once Larson was informed of his suspended license, he expressed his belief that an executive order in response to Covid-19 had extended the expiration date of his license. Deputy Morten responded that the court would have to address that issue since his license was coming up as suspended within his record search. Larson asked Deputy Morten if he could still drive his vehicle home. Deputy Morten explained that he could not, because his license was suspended and both passengers denied having a valid driver's license with them. The passengers began to use their cell phones to locate someone who could drive them home. Deputy Morten then informed Larson that he would likely have Larson sign a promise to appear, but ended the second encounter by stating, "I will start figuring some stuff out to the best I can." Deputy Morten then stepped away from the vehicle and went on to have a two-minute conversation with the two troopers, who both expressed suspicion about the route and Larson's and the passengers' nervous behavior. The three reached a consensus that illegal contents were likely inside Larson's vehicle. They discussed the availability of a drug dog but determined there was not one in the area. The two troopers recommended that Deputy Morten require Larson to exit the vehicle to ask him additional questions. One of the troopers then left the scene. Deputy Morten returned to his patrol car and spent a minute fixing his lights before informing the remaining officers on the scene of his intent to remove Larson from the vehicle and place him in his patrol car to ask him further questions. Deputy Morten returned to Larson's vehicle and asked him to step out of the vehicle. Upon his removal, Deputy Morten noticed a hypodermic needle sticking out of Larson's pocket. Deputy Morten removed the needle and placed Larson in his patrol car. Both Marsolek and Cruz were then removed from the vehicle, handcuffed, and placed in separate patrol cars.

[¶5] After the occupants were removed, Deputy Morten walked around the vehicle and observed an open, empty alcohol bottle in front of the passenger seat. The officers then searched the vehicle and discovered more hypodermic needles and a pipe. A locked safe was also found underneath the passenger seat. All three occupants were informed of their Miranda rights while in separate patrol cars. Each occupant was asked about the safe. Marsolek initially denied knowledge of the safe, but later admitted ownership after Cruz told the officers the safe belonged to Marsolek. He gave Morten the safe's combination. Inside, needles and methamphetamine were found.

[¶6] Marsolek moved to suppress the evidence resulting from the search. The district court denied the motion to suppress. Marsolek then entered a conditional guilty plea to possession of controlled substances and drug paraphernalia.

[¶7] On appeal, Marsolek argues the scope of the stop was expanded once Deputy Morten ended his second encounter with Larson. He argues that once the deputy left Larson's vehicle, he had enough information to write a citation for three offenses: driving with a suspended license, care required for having an unrestrained passenger, and driving with an obstructed view. Instead of returning to his patrol car to issue the citation, Deputy Morten had a two-minute conversation with the troopers, discussing their suspicions about "something [being] in the car," followed by another minute spent fixing his malfunctioning lights. Marsolek argues these activities elongated the stop because they were not within the purpose of the traffic stop. Marsolek also argues that ordering Larson out of the vehicle also elongated the stop because it was a tactic to "glean information which would support reasonable suspicion for a search of the vehicle." Marsolek claims there was no reasonable suspicion to expand the traffic stop for an unrestrained passenger and an obstructed windshield into a drug investigation.

II

[¶8] Our standard of review for a district court's decision on a motion to suppress is well established.

In reviewing a district court's decision on a motion to suppress evidence, we defer to the district court's findings of fact and resolve conflicts in testimony in favor of affirmance. We will affirm a district court's decision on a motion to suppress if there is sufficient
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