State v. Yager

Citation139 Idaho 680,85 P.3d 656
Decision Date11 February 2004
Docket NumberNo. 25881.,25881.
PartiesSTATE of Idaho, Plaintiff-Respondent-Cross Appellant, v. Scott D. YAGER, Defendant-Appellant-Cross Respondent.
CourtIdaho Supreme Court

Molly J. Huskey, State Appellate Public Defender; Sara B. Thomas, Chief, Criminal Division, Boise, for appellant. Sara B. Thomas and Mark J. Ackley argued.

Hon. Lawrence G. Wasden, Attorney General; L. LaMont Anderson, Deputy Attorney General, Boise, for respondent. L. LaMont Anderson argued.



BURDICK, Justice.


Scott D. Yager appeals from his judgment of conviction following a jury verdict of guilty of first-degree murder. The State has filed a cross-appeal contesting the district court's interpretation of the statutory aggravator defined in I.C. § 19-2515(h)(9), which compelled the district court to reject the death penalty and impose a fixed life sentence. Yager argues that to allow the State to again seek the death penalty in a resentencing hearing would violate the constitutional and statutory prohibitions against double jeopardy.


On the night of June 17, 1998, Idaho State Trooper Linda Huff was shot in the parking lot of the Idaho State Police District Office in Coeur d'Alene in a confrontation with Scott Yager. Trooper Huff was on duty, had just completed some paperwork in the office and was returning to her patrol car. Trooper Huff suffered injuries from at least eleven of the rounds fired by Yager, who was hit by at least one of the rounds fired by Trooper Huff. The fatal wound to Trooper Huff was from a round fired by Yager while his pistol was in near contact with the head of Trooper Huff.

ISP Officers were on the scene within seconds, and they immediately made a security check of the area. Yager appeared from the trees, walking in the direction of deputies who were searching the area. A deputy commanded him to drop the gun that he was carrying. After a second command, Yager dropped the gun, but continued walking toward the deputies. Then, he was commanded to the ground and was forcibly handcuffed, as he refused to cooperate with the officers' commands. Five officers were involved in Yager's arrest, all of which had their weapons drawn and pointed at Yager.

Yager was then asked by an officer "Where's your buddy?" and "Where's your car?" Yager answered that he was alone and that he rode his bike. A dispatcher, who had opened the back door of the ISP District Office when she heard Trooper Huff's screams, identified Yager as the individual she had seen kneeling over Trooper Huff with a gun.

Ballistics evidence established that Yager's gun was the same used to murder Trooper Huff. The slugs removed from Yager's body were fired from Trooper Huff's gun. Hair analysis established that a hair found on Yager's gun could have been from Trooper Huff. DNA evidence established that blood found inside the barrel of Yager's gun was from Trooper Huff. Two uniform citations found in Yager's room at his parents' home were the only items seized pursuant to a search warrant that were admitted into evidence. The search warrant was for letters, notes, diary, guns, ammo, citations, motive evidence, drugs, paraphernalia and pawnshop receipts.

Yager was charged with first-degree murder of Trooper Huff, an individual "who was a peace officer acting in the lawful discharge of her official duty." The state notified the district court of its intent to seek the death penalty.

The district court heard Yager's motion for change of venue based on pretrial publicity. The motion was denied, but the district court would allow the subject to be revisited during the jury selection process. The district court denied the renewed motion. The district court also denied the motions to suppress (a) statements made at the time of the arrest and (b) items recovered from Yager's room pursuant to the search warrant. The district court denied those motions as well.

The jury found Yager guilty of first-degree murder and use of a deadly weapon. The district court then conducted a hearing on aggravation and mitigation, as required before a court may impose a sentence of death. Concluding that the state had failed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt any of the statutory aggravating factors, the district court imposed a fixed life sentence for the murder and a fixed, fixteen-year sentence for the firearms enhancement.


1. Did the district court err in denying Yager's motions to suppress?

2. Did the district court deny Yager his due process rights when it denied Yager's motion for change of venue?

3. Was Yager denied a fair trial by a fair and impartial jury when the district court determined not to dismiss two jurors who, during voir dire, expressed belief of Yager's guilt prior to trial?

4. On cross-appeal, did the district court err by interpreting the aggravating factor found in I.C. § 19-2515(h)(9) to be limited to murders involving an officer who engages the defendant in affirmative action consistent with official duties?

1. Motion to Suppress
A. The statements

Yager contends that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress the first statements he made to Sergeant Middlemore, indicating that he was alone and that he had ridden his bicycle. Claiming he was in handcuffs and on the ground at the scene of the shooting, with a broken arm, surrounded by officers with their guns drawn and pointed at him, Yager asserts that his responses to the officer's questions were unwarned and involuntary and should have been suppressed.

The bifurcated review of a decision on a motion to suppress requires that we accept the trial court's findings of fact where supported by substantial evidence, but we freely review the application of constitutional principles to the facts as found. State v. DuValt, 131 Idaho 550, 552-53, 961 P.2d 641, 643-44 (1998); State v. Shepherd, 118 Idaho 121, 122, 795 P.2d 15, 16 (Ct.App.1990). We give due deference to any implicit findings of the trial court supported by substantial evidence. State v. DuValt, supra, citing State v. Kirkwood,

111 Idaho 623, 625, 726 P.2d 735, 737 (1986).

Irrefutably, Yager was in custody at the time he was handcuffed, and the district court so ruled. Under the facts of the case, however, the district court held that the "public safety" exception to Miranda applied and ruled Yager's statements admissible on that basis. The district court determined that there was no evidence that Yager's statements were other than voluntary and declined to suppress them.

Miranda warnings are triggered by custodial interrogation. State v. Osborne, 130 Idaho 365, 941 P.2d 337 (Ct.App.1997). Unwarned inculpatory statements obtained while in police custody are presumed to be compelled and thus are required to be excluded from evidence at trial in the state's case in chief. State v. Nobles, 122 Idaho 509, 511, 835 P.2d 1320, 1322 (Ct.App.1991),citing Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 476, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 1628, 16 L.Ed.2d 694, 724 (1966). The United States Supreme Court has recognized, however, exigent situations, referred to as the "public safety exception" to excuse strict compliance with Miranda requirements. New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649, 104 S.Ct. 2626, 81 L.Ed.2d 550 (1984). The Court's rationale was expressed as follows:

We conclude that the need for answers to questions in a situation posing a threat to public safety outweighs the need for the prophylactic rule protecting the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination. We decline to place officers such as Officer Kraft in the untenable position of having to consider, often in a matter of seconds, whether it best serves society for them to ask the necessary questions without the Miranda warnings and render whatever probative evidence they uncover inadmissible, or for them to give the warnings in order to preserve the admissibility of evidence they might uncover but possibly damage or destroy their ability to obtain that evidence and neutralize the volatile situation confronting them.

Id. at 657, 104 S.Ct. at 2632, 81 L.Ed.2d at 558.1

Here, the State argued that the officer's questions were necessary to secure the safety of the officers and the public at the location where Trooper Huff was killed in an exchange of gunfire. It was imperative to learn if someone else was acting with Yager, who might pose a danger to the officers and the public. This Court finds Yager's statements that he was alone and on a bicycle were not obtained in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights, as the facts of this case bring the statements within the narrow exception to the Miranda rule prescribed in Quarles.

When a defendant alleges an interrogation to be coercive, the State bears the burden of proving voluntariness of the defendant's confession by a preponderance of the evidence. State v. Johns, 112 Idaho 873, 878, 736 P.2d 1327, 1332 (1987), citing Lego v. Twomey, 404 U.S. 477, 92 S.Ct. 619, 30 L.Ed.2d 618 (1972)

. In order to determine the voluntariness of a confession, the Court must look to the "totality of the circumstances" and determine whether the defendant's will was overborne. State v. Radford, 134 Idaho 187, 191, 998 P.2d 80, 84 (2000),

citing Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 287, 111 S.Ct. 1246, 1252, 113 L.Ed.2d 302, 316 (1991).

Yager argues that the environment in which he made the statements was coercive, even if the manner of questioning was not. When the officer questioned him, Yager was surrounded by officers with weapons drawn and aimed at him; he was handcuffed, suffered a broken arm, was made to lie prone until the officer allowed him to sit up. The arrest took place at the scene where Trooper Huff's body lay, before the location was secured. The State argues that the statements were not involuntary as a result of police...

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