State v. Tognotti, 20030015.

Decision Date17 June 2003
Docket NumberNo. 20030015.,20030015.
Citation2003 ND 99,663 N.W.2d 642
PartiesSTATE of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Jessica Lynn TOGNOTTI, Defendant and Appellee.
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court

Mark Rainer Boening, Assistant State's Attorney, Fargo, ND, for plaintiff and appellant.

Monty Grant Mertz, Fargo, ND, for defendant and appellee.

MARING, Justice.

[¶ 1] The State appealed from an order suppressing evidence in the prosecution of Jessica Lynn Tognotti for possession of drug paraphernalia. We hold that, incident to a valid arrest of an occupant in a vehicle, the arresting officer can search the contents of a nonarrested occupant's purse, if the purse was in the vehicle at the time of the arrest and the occupant was not instructed by the officer to leave it in the vehicle upon exiting. We overrule State v. Gilberts, 497 N.W.2d 93, 99 (N.D.1993), to the extent its rationale is contrary to our holding in this case, reverse the order suppressing evidence, and remand for further proceedings.

I

[¶ 2] The facts relevant to the suppression motion are undisputed, and the parties stipulated that Tognotti's affidavit and the arresting officer's report constitute the record evidence on the suppression motion.

[¶ 3] While patrolling in Fargo, at approximately 10:15 p.m., on April 24, 2002, Officer Todd Wahl observed a vehicle being driven with its headlights off. Tognotti was driving the vehicle, accompanied by her infant daughter, her husband, and a friend, Wendell Decoteau. After the officer stopped the vehicle, he checked the occupants' identifications, and then returned to his police car to check for outstanding arrest warrants. The officer discovered an outstanding arrest warrant on Decoteau for having failed to pay child support. The officer arrested Decoteau and placed him in his police car. After requesting that Tognotti and her husband exit their vehicle, the officer conducted a search of the vehicle's interior. The officer searched Tognotti's purse, which was lying on the driver's side of the front seat. In the purse, he discovered a "sunglass case" with drug paraphernalia inside it, including a syringe, a spoon, three ends of what appeared to be a tied baggie, and a small amount of what appeared to be methamphetamine residue. The officer arrested Tognotti, and she was charged with class C felony possession of drug paraphernalia.

[¶ 4] Tognotti filed a motion to suppress the evidence the officer discovered during the search of her purse, on the grounds the search violated her Fourth Amendment constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure. After a hearing, the trial court concluded the search fell within the purview of this Court's decision in Gilberts, 497 N.W.2d at 99, and granted Tognotti's motion to suppress.

II
A.

[¶ 5] The State appealed, as authorized under N.D.C.C. § 29-28-07(5), from the order granting the motion to suppress. When reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, we defer to the trial court's findings of fact and resolve conflicts and testimony in favor of affirmance. State v. Haverluk, 2000 ND 178, ¶ 7, 617 N.W.2d 652. After resolving conflicting evidence in favor of affirmance, we affirm the trial court's decision unless there is insufficient competent evidence to support the decision or the decision goes against the manifest weight of the evidence. Id. Questions of law are fully reviewable. State v. Gregg, 2000 ND 154,¶ 20, 615 N.W.2d 515.

[¶ 6] The trial court concluded the officer's search of Tognotti's purse following Decoteau's arrest was an improper search incident to the arrest which violated Tognotti's constitutional rights. We agree with the trial court that the circumstances in this case are not legally distinguishable from the facts in Gilberts. However, in view of the United States Supreme Court decision in Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295, 302, 119 S.Ct. 1297, 143 L.Ed.2d 408 (1999), and subsequent cases from other jurisdictions applying the rationale of that decision to searches incident to arrest, we believe that it is appropriate at this time to reexamine Gilberts and to adopt a bright-line rule for searching containers found in a vehicle which is searched incident to an arrest.

B.

[¶ 7] The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. State v. Lanctot, 1998 ND 216, ¶ 5, 587 N.W.2d 568. A warrantless search is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment unless it falls within a recognized exception to the requirement for a search warrant. Id. A search incident to a valid custodial arrest is an exception to the warrant requirement. Id.

[¶ 8] The United States Supreme Court defined the scope of a search incident to arrest in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 763, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969), holding that an officer making a lawful custodial arrest may search the arrestee and the area within the arrestee's immediate control. In New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 457-61, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1981) (citations omitted), the Court explained the applicability of the Chimel rule to automobile searches:

Specifically, the Court held in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685, that a lawful custodial arrest creates a situation which justifies the contemporaneous search without a warrant of the person arrested and of the immediately surrounding area. Such searches have long been considered valid because of the need "to remove any weapons that [the arrestee] might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape" and the need to prevent the concealment or destruction of evidence.
....
In short, "[a] single, familiar standard is essential to guide police officers, who have only limited time and expertise to reflect on and balance the social and individual interests involved in the specific circumstances they confront."
....
But no straightforward rule has emerged from the litigated cases respecting the question involved here—the question of the proper scope of a search of the interior of an automobile incident to a lawful custodial arrest of its occupants.
....
[W]e hold that when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile.
It follows from this conclusion that the police may also examine the contents of any containers found within the passenger compartment, for if the passenger compartment is within reach of the arrestee, so also will containers in it be within his reach. Such a container may, of course, be searched whether it is open or closed, since the justification for the search is not that the arrestee has no privacy interest in the container, but that the lawful custodial arrest justifies the infringement of any privacy interest the arrestee may have.

[¶ 9] The court in Belton established a bright-line rule for police searches of the interior of a vehicle when the occupants of the vehicle have been arrested. In Belton, however, all of the occupants of the vehicle had been arrested prior to the officer's search of the vehicle's interior. A slightly different factual situation was presented to this Court in Gilberts, 497 N.W.2d at 94-95, wherein the officer arrested the driver of a vehicle and then proceeded to search the interior of the vehicle, including the jacket of a nonarrested occupant in the vehicle. This Court concluded the officer's search of the jacket violated the passenger's constitutional rights:

When [the officer] reached into Gilberts's jacket pocket he knew that the jacket belonged to Gilberts, not the arrested driver. Furthermore, [the officer] had seen that the jacket had been "draped down around [Gilberts's] back" and that Gilberts was "kind of sitting on it." Under these circumstances, we hold that the Belton rationale does not justify [the officer's] search of Gilberts's jacket. Standing alone, the driver's arrest was an inadequate ground for this intrusion upon Gilberts's constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure of his person and property.

Gilberts, 497 N.W.2d at 97. The Gilberts decision was authored by Justice Herbert Meschke, with Justice Beryl Levine concurring. Chief Justice Vande Walle filed a special concurring opinion, joined by Surrogate Judge Ralph J. Erickstad, in which he stated,

So much for the "bright-line" test for determining the scope of a search of an automobile pursuant to a lawful custodial arrest as established by New York v. Belton. The Belton decision was prompted by the need to establish straight forward and workable rules to apply to the scope of a search of an automobile after the arrest of the occupant.
....
Because the jacket, although not actually worn by Gilberts, was "draped around his neck," I believe this is a close case. Because of these circumstances, but recognizing, as I do, that it does blur the "bright-line" test of Belton, I reluctantly concur in the result reached by the majority.

Gilberts, 497 N.W.2d at 99 (citation omitted).

[¶ 10] Since the Gilberts decision, this Court has continued to recognize the Belton rule that once a person has been lawfully arrested an officer may search the passenger compartment of the arrestee's vehicle without a warrant. See, e.g., State v. Erbele, 554 N.W.2d 448, 451 (N.D.1996)

. In State v. Wanzek, 1999 ND 163, ¶ 15, 598 N.W.2d 811 (citations omitted), this Court held that the Belton rationale authorizes an officer to search a vehicle incident to arrest, irrespective of whether the arrest occurs inside or nearby the stopped vehicle:

We are not persuaded by the line of cases which hold an arrestee is an occupant only when arrested inside the vehicle or where the police initiate contact with the arrestee before the arrestee exits the vehicle. In our view, these decisions undermine the purposes behind
...

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