State v. Seaman

Decision Date06 December 2005
Docket NumberNo. 04-787.,04-787.
Citation2005 MT 307,329 Mont. 429,124 P.3d 1137
PartiesSTATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Tammie SEAMAN, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Hon. Mike McGrath, Montana Attorney General, John Paulson, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana, Brant S. Light, Cascade County Attorney, Marty Judnich, Deputy County Attorney, Great Falls, Montana, for Appellant.

Steven M. Hudspeth, Attorney at Law, Great Falls, Montana, for Respondent.

Justice JAMES C. NELSON delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 Tammie Seaman was convicted of driving under the influence (DUI) following the Justice Court's denial of her motion to suppress. She appealed to the District Court for the Eighth Judicial District, Cascade County. The District Court determined that the officer involved had no lawful basis to stop and detain Seaman for a welfare check under the Community Caretaker Doctrine. Hence, the District Court reversed the Justice Court's Order denying Seaman's motion to suppress and further reversed the resulting Justice Court judgment of conviction. The State now appeals asking that we reverse the District Court and order that Seaman's DUI conviction be reinstated. We reverse and remand.

¶ 2 We address the following issue on appeal: Whether the District Court misinterpreted or misapplied the Community Caretaker Doctrine and thereby erroneously reversed the Justice Court's Order denying Seaman's motion to suppress.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶ 3 On January 6, 2004, at about 3:15 p.m., Officer Robert Armstrong of the Montana Highway Patrol was driving northbound on Interstate 15 about four miles northwest of Great Falls. As he drove by the Manchester Interchange, Officer Armstrong looked to his left across the median to the southbound lane and saw a red passenger car parked on the shoulder of the off-ramp of the interchange. He noticed that there was someone sitting in the driver's seat of the vehicle. The temperature at the time was near zero, with a substantial sub-zero wind chill factor.

¶ 4 Officer Armstrong, who has over eight years of experience with the Montana Highway Patrol, became concerned that someone in the parked car might need assistance, hence he decided to check out the situation. He drove up the interstate for about half a mile, turned onto the southbound lane at a crossover, and drove back to the parked car. When Officer Armstrong pulled up behind the parked car and turned on his overhead emergency lights, his dash-mounted video camera was automatically activated, and the events that followed were recorded.

¶ 5 As Officer Armstrong drove up behind the parked car, he observed that the person who had been in the car and who was later identified as Seaman, was now standing outside the car on the passenger side and that both passenger side doors were open. Officer Armstrong did not see anyone else in the car. As Officer Armstrong pulled up to a stop behind the car, Seaman closed the car doors and walked slowly around the back of the car, holding onto the rear and side of the car and glancing toward the patrol car. Seaman continued to the front of her car, opened the driver's door, and got into the car. Officer Armstrong got out of his patrol car, activated the external microphone on his uniform, and walked up to the driver's window.

¶ 6 Officer Armstrong later testified that because he was still unsure that everything was okay, he went up to the driver's window and asked Seaman some questions. As he did so, he noticed that Seaman's eyes were bloodshot and glassy, her speech was slurred, and he smelled the odor of alcohol. Seaman told Officer Armstrong that she and her car were okay and that she had stopped her car because she had asthma. When Officer Armstrong asked if she had a medical problem and if she needed an ambulance, she responded that she did not. When Officer Armstrong asked her if she had been drinking, Seaman initially said she had not, but she later admitted that she had had several beers.

¶ 7 Based on his observations, Officer Armstrong decided to commence a DUI investigation. After further questioning and the administration of the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, Officer Armstrong arrested Seaman for DUI. Seaman's preliminary breath test at the scene indicated a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .209 and a subsequent test showed a BAC of .219.

¶ 8 Seaman was charged with second-offense DUI, a misdemeanor in violation of § 61-8-401, MCA. She filed a motion to suppress all evidence acquired during her encounter with Officer Armstrong. On March 24, 2004, the Justice Court, which has been established as a court of record pursuant to § 3-10-101(5), MCA, conducted an evidentiary hearing on the motion. The videotape of Officer Armstrong's encounter with Seaman was admitted as an exhibit and played at the hearing. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Justice Court determined that Officer Armstrong contacted Seaman under the Community Caretaker Doctrine and that his actions and questions did not exceed the scope of his reason for contact—i.e., to determine whether Seaman was in need of aid. Hence, the Justice Court denied the motion to suppress. Following a bench trial, Seaman was convicted of the charge and she appealed to the District Court.

¶ 9 On October 12, 2004, following briefing by both sides, the District Court issued an Order reversing the Justice Court's Order denying the motion to suppress and reversing the judgment of conviction. The State appeals the District Court's Order to this Court. Seaman failed to file a brief on appeal before this Court.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 10 We review a district court's grant of a motion to suppress to determine whether the court's findings of fact are clearly erroneous and whether the court's interpretation and application of the law are correct. State v. Palmer, 2003 MT 129, ¶ 6, 316 Mont. 46, ¶ 6, 68 P.3d 809, ¶ 6 (citing City of Cut Bank v. Bird, 2001 MT 296, ¶ 9, 307 Mont. 460, ¶ 9, 38 P.3d 804, ¶ 9). In an appeal from a justice court established as a court of record, the district court functions as an appellate court and the appeal is confined to a review of the record and questions of law. Section 3-10-115(1), MCA. This Court's constitutional power and obligation of final appellate review confer jurisdiction to hear an appeal from a district court's ruling. State v. Caldwell, 1998 MT 261, ¶ 13, 291 Mont. 272, ¶ 13, 968 P.2d 711, ¶ 13 (citing Art. VII, § 2(1), Mont. Const.; State v. Finley (1996), 276 Mont. 126, 135, 915 P.2d 208, 214, overruled in part by State v. Gallagher, 2001 MT 39, 304 Mont. 215, 19 P.3d 817). Thus, both the District Court and this Court review the Justice Court's factual findings for clear error and its legal conclusions for correctness.

DISCUSSION

¶ 11 Whether the District Court misinterpreted or misapplied the Community Caretaker Doctrine and thereby erroneously reversed the Justice Court's Order denying Seaman's motion to suppress.

¶ 12 The State argues on appeal that viewing the encounter between Seaman and Officer Armstrong in light of the analysis of the Community Caretaker Doctrine first set forth in State v. Lovegren, 2002 MT 153, 310 Mont. 358, 51 P.3d 471, this Court should conclude that the Justice Court correctly applied the Community Caretaker Doctrine to the facts of this case, that the District Court misapplied Lovegren by according insufficient investigative latitude to Officer Armstrong as he was lawfully acting under the Community Caretaker Doctrine, and that the District Court's Order should be reversed.

¶ 13 As we stated in Lovegren, not all contact between law enforcement officers and citizens involves the "seizure" of a person under the Fourth Amendment. Lovegren, ¶ 13. The officer in Lovegren was on routine patrol when he came upon a vehicle parked on the side of the highway with its motor running and its headlights off. Concerned for the welfare of the vehicle's occupant, the officer stopped, approached the vehicle on foot and saw the defendant sitting in the driver's seat, apparently asleep. The officer knocked on the window and when the defendant did not respond, the officer opened the door. The defendant woke up and the officer immediately observed indications of possible intoxication. The defendant was subsequently charged with driving under the influence of alcohol in violation of § 61-8-401, MCA. Lovegren, ¶¶ 3-4.

¶ 14 The defendant in Lovegren moved to suppress all of the evidence obtained by the officer claiming that it was an illegal search and seizure. The Justice Court denied the motion and convicted the defendant of the DUI charge. The defendant appealed to the District Court contending that the officer lacked a particularized suspicion of any wrongdoing on defendant's part, thus the stop was not justified. The District Court denied defendant's motion to suppress stating that a particularized suspicion was not required in this situation as the officer had a duty to investigate for the defendant's own safety. Thereafter, the defendant agreed to plead guilty, but he reserved his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. Lovegren, ¶¶ 5-7.

¶ 15 This Court discussed the Community Caretaker Doctrine at length in Lovegren. We stated therein that the doctrine serves to justify certain police-citizen encounters that, at their inception, are unrelated to the detection and investigation of crime. Lovegren, ¶ 16. We noted in Lovegren that the police must frequently engage in certain community caretaking functions totally divorced from the enforcement of criminal laws, particularly with respect to automobiles on public highways. Such functions may include assisting motorists who are stranded, involved in accidents, or otherwise in need of assistance. Lovegren, ¶ 17. Assisting a motorist in peril or in apparent need of aid is often viewed as an affirmative duty of the police and we...

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