State v. Sarbacher, 122320 IDSCCR, 47280

Docket Nº47280
Opinion JudgeMOELLER, JUSTICE.
Party NameSTATE OF IDAHO, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. KEITH ANTONE SARBACHER, Defendant-Respondent.
AttorneyLawrence G. Wasden, Idaho Attorney General, Boise, for Appellant. Ken Jorgensen argued. Eric Don Fredericksen, State Appellate Public Defender, Boise, for Respondent. Brian Dickson argued.
Judge PanelJustices BRODY and BEVAN CONCUR. STEGNER, J., concurring in the result and dissenting in the analysis. Chief Justice BURDICK concurs.
Case DateDecember 23, 2020
CourtSupreme Court of Idaho

STATE OF IDAHO, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

KEITH ANTONE SARBACHER, Defendant-Respondent.

No. 47280

Supreme Court of Idaho

December 23, 2020

Appeal from the District Court of the Second Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Nez Perce County. Jeff M. Brudie, District Judge.

The district court's order granting defendant's motion to dismiss is vacated and remanded.

Lawrence G. Wasden, Idaho Attorney General, Boise, for Appellant. Ken Jorgensen argued.

Eric Don Fredericksen, State Appellate Public Defender, Boise, for Respondent. Brian Dickson argued.

MOELLER, JUSTICE.

This case concerns the scope of the State's constitutional duty to preserve material evidence with unknown exculpatory value in a criminal case and the consequences of its failure to do so. The State charged Keith Sarbacher with grand theft by receiving or possessing stolen property: a 2001 Dodge pickup truck. After Sarbacher's arrest, the State inventoried and photographed the truck and then returned it to the insurance company, who then sold the truck before Sarbacher's attorneys could examine it. Sarbacher moved the district court for dismissal, arguing that the State violated his constitutional right to due process by disposing of evidence that was material and potentially exculpatory. The district court granted Sarbacher's motion and dismissed the State's case. The State appeals the district court's decision because the evidence at issue was of unknown exculpatory value and the trial court expressly found that the State had not acted in bad faith. We vacate the decision of the district court and remand for further proceedings.

I.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On the morning of February 27, 2019, Devin Hunt spotted a vehicle in Lewiston, Idaho, that he recognized as his stolen truck. Hunt promptly called the Idaho State Police ("ISP") to make a report. Hunt described the vehicle, which had been stolen two years earlier, as a "2001 green Dodge 2500 diesel pick up [sic]." ISP Sergeant Christopher Middleton received the report and shortly thereafter saw a vehicle matching the truck's description.

Sergeant Middleton initiated a stop of the vehicle. The driver identified himself as Keith Sarbacher, and said he was en route to his first day of work for a towing company. Sarbacher was "handcuffed, pat searched, and placed in the back of the patrol vehicle." Sergeant Middleton called Hunt directly for more details about the truck. In addition to identifying unique features on the truck (i.e., Hunt's custom installed parts), the Department of Transportation later matched the VIN number from the vehicle's glove box with the VIN number of Hunt's stolen truck.

While detained in the patrol car-and without being read his Miranda[1] rights-Sergeant Middleton questioned Sarbacher about the truck and from whom he had purchased it. Sarbacher told Sergeant Middleton that he bought the truck for $5,000 from a fellow-inmate he had met while incarcerated in Washington. Once released from prison, Sarbacher claimed he took possession of the truck from a third party about two to three months earlier. Sarbacher told Sergeant Middleton that when he initially received the truck, it lacked wheels, a hood, headlights, taillights, and it had to be rewired to start. Sarbacher also claimed he had a bill of sale for the truck at his girlfriend's house. Sergeant Middleton explained to Sarbacher that the VIN plate did not match the vehicle, the rivets holding the VIN plate were irregular, and the ignition system had been altered.

The owner of the towing company used by ISP-coincidentally Sarbacher's new employer-then arrived on the scene. Sarbacher's employer gave Sergeant Middleton conflicting information from Sarbacher's account of acquiring the truck. Meanwhile, other officers on the scene were attempting and failing to start the vehicle. Sergeant Middleton arrested Sarbacher, charging him with grand theft by receiving or possessing stolen property, in violation of Idaho Code sections 18-2403(4)(a) and 18-2407(1)(b)(1). Sergeant Middleton inventoried the truck and photographed its contents the next day.

Sergeant Middleton submitted an affidavit explaining that he called defense counsel's office on March 4, 2019, to advise them of the truck's release to Hunt's insurance company. While speaking with an office assistant, he testified he heard counsel say "very plainly" in the background: "That is their problem, let them deal with it." However, Sarbacher's attorney strenuously denied this account, arguing that the State was relying on perjured testimony because he had been on a family vacation at the time the call was allegedly made. In a later affidavit, Sergeant Middleton further explained that after Sarbacher bonded out, he came to collect his personal effects on March 8, 2019. At that time, Sergeant Middleton testified that he informed Sarbacher that law enforcement would be releasing the truck to the insurance company. Sergeant Middleton asserted that he never received a request from counsel or Sarbacher to retain the vehicle. The State later delivered the truck to Hunt's insurance company on March 18, 2019, two days before Sarbacher's preliminary hearing. The insurance company sold the truck and the State's efforts to track it down were unsuccessful.

Sarbacher moved to exclude the statements he made to Sergeant Middleton while detained in the patrol car, arguing that they were in violation of Miranda. The district court agreed and granted his motion to exclude. Sarbacher then attempted to access the truck and arrange for an expert witness to examine it for potential exculpatory evidence, including: a search for DNA in the "grime" covering the VIN number, a rivet analysis to challenge Sergeant Middleton's testimony, and access to the truck to show there was a start-button ignition and anti-theft system. Sarbacher claims that this was when he was first informed by the State that it had already released the vehicle.

Sarbacher filed a motion to dismiss the charges against him, arguing a violation of his due process rights under the U.S. and Idaho Constitutions because the State disposed of material evidence. The State opposed the motion but "acknowledge[d] that the pick-up is material to this investigation." The district court granted Sarbacher's motion, explaining: Here the truck in question is clearly material to Sarbacher's defense. The vehicle was not recently stolen, and the Court has suppressed Sarbacher's responses to law enforcement questioning at the traffic stop. Therefore, the condition of and alleged physical alterations to the vehicle comprise the circumstantial foundation of the State's case.

It appears that the truck was released from ISP's custody mere days after the State's first response to discovery and just prior to the preliminary hearing, providing no opportunity for Sarbacher to examine or fully investigate the evidence against him. While the Court does not find this an act of bad faith on the part of the State, it has nevertheless resulted in an irreparable infringement on Sarbacher's due process rights. Accordingly, Sarbacher's motion is granted.

The State first filed a motion for reconsideration, which the district court denied. The State then filed a timely notice of appeal. One day after the State filed this appeal, the district court denied the State's motion for reconsideration.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court reviews a trial court's decision regarding a motion to dismiss a criminal action for an abuse of discretion. State v. Roth, 166 Idaho 281, 458 P.3d 150, 152 (2020). See also I.C.R. 48(a) (the dismissal of a criminal action is a discretionary decision of the trial court based on its own motion or by motion of any party). In reviewing discretionary rulings, we engage in a multi-tiered inquiry to determine whether the trial court: "(1) correctly perceived the issue as one of discretion; (2) acted within the outer boundaries of its discretion; (3) acted consistently with the legal standards applicable to the specific choices available to it; and (4) reached its decision by the exercise of reason." Lunneborg v. My Fun Life, 163 Idaho 856, 863, 421 P.3d 187, 194 (2018).

Like a motion to suppress evidence, when a decision on a motion to dismiss is challenged, "the Court accepts the trial court's findings of fact that are supported by substantial evidence, but freely reviews the application of constitutional principles to the facts as found." State v. Bodenbach, 165 Idaho 577, 589, 448 P.3d 1005, 1017 (2019) (quoting State v. Moore, 164 Idaho 379, 381, 430 P.3d 1278, 1280 (2018)). "This Court will accept the trial court's findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous." State v. Gonzales, 165 Idaho 667, 671, 450 P.3d 315, 319 (2019) (quoting State v. Purdum, 147 Idaho 206, 207, 207 P.3d 182, 183 (2009)).

III. ANALYSIS

On appeal, the parties primarily dispute the legal standard applied by the district court. The State contends that the district court erred by applying Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 86– 88 (1963), rather than Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U.S. 51 (1988). The State maintains that had the district court properly applied Youngblood, the court's finding that disposing of the vehicle was not "an act of bad faith on the part of the State" would have been dispositive and required that the motion to dismiss be denied. Sarbacher argues that the district court correctly applied the materiality standard from Brady, as articulated by the Idaho Court of Appeals in State v. Leatherwood, 104 Idaho 100, 103, 656 P.2d 760, 763 (Idaho Ct. App. 1982).

A. The district erred in applying Brady, instead of Youngblood, to a case where the missing evidence was of unknown exculpatory value.

"The due process...

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