State v. Pfeifer, 121218 AKCA, A-12709

Docket Nº:A-12709
Opinion Judge:WOLLENBERG, JUDGE
Party Name:STATE OF ALASKA, Appellant, v. JASON E. PFEIFER, Appellee.
Attorney:Kenneth M. Rosenstein, Attorney at Law, under contract with the Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellant. Julie Willoughby, Law Office of Julie Willoughby, Juneau, for the Appellee.
Judge Panel:Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, and Allard and Wollenberg, Judges.
Case Date:December 12, 2018
Court:Court of Appeals of Alaska
 
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STATE OF ALASKA, Appellant,

v.

JASON E. PFEIFER, Appellee.

No. A-12709

Court of Appeals of Alaska

December 12, 2018

UNPUBLISHED See Alaska Appellate Rule 214(d)

Appeal from the Superior Court, First Judicial District, Ketchikan, Trial Court No. 1KE-16-236 CR Trevor N. Stephens, Judge.

Kenneth M. Rosenstein, Attorney at Law, under contract with the Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellant.

Julie Willoughby, Law Office of Julie Willoughby, Juneau, for the Appellee.

Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, and Allard and Wollenberg, Judges.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

WOLLENBERG, JUDGE

A grand jury indicted Jason E. Pfeifer on two counts of misconduct involving a controlled substance. The charges arose after Pfeifer crashed his vehicle in downtown Ketchikan and fled, leaving two backpacks in the vehicle. The police searched the backpacks and found the drugs that formed the basis for the two charges.

Following an evidentiary hearing, the superior court ruled that Pfeifer had not abandoned the backpacks and that the police had improperly searched them. Accordingly, the court suppressed the State's evidence and dismissed the indictment against Pfeifer.

The State now appeals the superior court's dismissal of the indictment. The State contends that Pfeifer's backpacks were not subject to Fourth Amendment protection because Pfeifer no longer retained a reasonable expectation of privacy in them. The State argues that the superior court erred by focusing on Pfeifer's ownership interest in the backpacks and the vehicle, rather than focusing on Pfeifer's reasonable expectation of privacy in these items.

For the reasons explained in this decision, we agree with the State that the superior court applied the wrong legal analysis when deciding whether the property was abandoned, and we conclude that the court erred in suppressing the evidence seized. We therefore reinstate the indictment.

Underlying facts

In August 2015, Ketchikan police received a report that a vehicle had crashed into three wooden pillars in downtown Ketchikan. Ketchikan Police Sergeant Robert Cheatam responded to the scene. The vehicle was lying on its passenger side on the public sidewalk, with its driver's side in the air. Some of the contents of the vehicle had spilled onto the sidewalk. Witnesses told the police that the driver had climbed out of the vehicle and run away. Cheatam and another police officer searched the area but were unable to locate the driver.

The police soon determined that the vehicle was registered to Pfeifer at his father's business address in Ketchikan. The police tried to contact Pfeifer and his father. Cheatam also testified that he believed he had his dispatcher call the hospital to determine if Pfeifer had sought medical assistance.

But despite these efforts, the police were unable to locate anyone who claimed responsibility for the vehicle. No one returned any of the calls or messages left by the police for Pfeifer and his father. And no one reported the vehicle missing in the almost ten hours that Cheatam remained on duty that night.

Cheatam impounded the vehicle. After a tow truck operator righted the vehicle onto its tires, Cheatam conducted an inventory of the vehicle's contents in the event that the owner later appeared to reclaim the vehicle and its contents. Cheatam began this inventory search about twenty minutes after he arrived at the scene of the accident.

There were two backpacks in the vehicle. Inside the backpacks, Cheatam found three large bags of capsules containing a material that later tested positive for THC, a metal water bottle containing more capsules with a substance that tested positive for THC, a bong that smelled of marijuana, a digital scale, eleven rubber containers containing marijuana wax oil, and an "Enterprise Plus" card with Pfeifer's name on it.

The day after the accident, a lawyer claiming to...

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