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State v. Munoz

March 16, 2010

STATE OF IDAHO, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
COREY RICHARD MUNOZ, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, in and for Ada County. The Hon. Michael E. Wetherell, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eismann, Chief Justice.

2010 Opinion No. 22

The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

This is an appeal from the denial of a motion to suppress. The central issue is whether the district court erred in believing the officer‟s testimony during the suppression hearing, where that testimony was irreconcilable with the same officer‟s testimony during the preliminary hearing. We hold that the credibility of witnesses is for the trial court to determine and uphold the judgment of the district court.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On July 5, 2005, Detective Jason Pietrzak of the Garden City Police Department and another detective drove in an unmarked car to a trailer park reputed to be the residence of an individual named Marsh, who was wanted on an outstanding felony warrant. They had a jail booking photograph and a physical description to identify Marsh. They drove through the trailer park and ran some of the license plates on vehicles they saw. They also stopped and talked with a gentleman near the front entrance who appeared to be a caretaker. As they were leaving, a green Geo automobile went past them into the trailer park. They saw two people in the Geo, and the front-seat passenger looked like Marsh. The detectives parked on the side of the road and waited.

The Geo then drove out of the trailer park, and the detectives could see three people in it. The person who looked like Marsh was now sitting in the back seat, and the person who had driven the Geo into the trailer park was sitting in the front passenger seat. A female was driving the Geo. The detectives followed the Geo and radioed for officers in a marked patrol car to stop it. At least two marked patrol cars responded and stopped the Geo about one and one-half miles from the entrance to the trailer park.*fn1

The patrol officers who stopped the Geo drew their weapons and ordered the occupants to get out of the car and walk back to where the officers were. Three people got out of the Geo, and they were handcuffed, patted down for weapons, and separated. The officers discovered that the person believed to be Marsh was actually Pfisterer. He had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant and was arrested. The two other occupants in the car were then unhandcuffed.

Detective Pietrzak discovered a small amount of marijuana on the floorboard of the front passenger seat, where Corey Munoz had been sitting when the officers stopped the Geo. He described it as a "chunk" of dried, compacted marijuana leaf about the size of a nine-volt battery. He asked Munoz if that marijuana was his, and Munoz answered that it was. Detective Pietrzak asked Munoz if he had any more, and Munoz stated that he did and pulled a sandwich bag full of marijuana out of his pants pocket. Detective Pietrzak then arrested Munoz for possession of that marijuana. One of the central issues on this appeal is Detective Pietrzak‟s conflicting testimony regarding his discovery of the marijuana on the floorboard.

On August 9, 2005, Munoz was charged with felony possession of more than three ounces of marijuana. During the preliminary hearing held on November 25, 2005, Detective Pietrzak was asked why they searched the Geo. He answered, "Well, once we placed Mr. Pfisterer under arrest, we searched incident to that arrest." He testified, "As far as the chronological order of it,... I know that we went up and glanced, made sure there was no one in the car, nothing hazardous while we conducted our business 30 feet away or a car‟s length away from it. After Mr. Pfisterer was arrested on the warrant, the vehicle was searched incident to his arrest." Detective Pietrzak was then asked whether "the only reason you go back to the vehicle to conduct a search is your belief it is a search incident to arrest of Mr. Pfisterer," and he answered, "Absolutely." He added that "the actual physical search of the car, when I found the marijuana? Yes that‟s incident to Mr. Pfisterer‟s arrest." (Emphasis added.) When asked whether he looked through the window or opened the door of the Geo, Detective Pietrzak testified: "I opened the door and began searching. I looked above the visor, looked on the dashboard. At some point, I looked on the passenger floor board and then found the marijuana." (Emphasis added.)

After Munoz was bound over to answer to that charge in the district court, he filed a motion to suppress, which was heard on August 28, 2006. During that hearing, Detective Pietrzak gave a different version of how he discovered the marijuana on the floorboard of the Geo. He testified that after the occupants were out of the Geo and before Pfisterer was arrested on the misdemeanor warrant, he walked up to the vehicle to make sure nobody else was in it. When asked if he noticed anything of evidentiary value, he stated that he did. When asked what he noticed, he answered, "[T]here was a large piece of green dried marijuana that was on the front passenger side floorboard." When asked if it was in plain view, he answered, "Oh, absolutely. It was in the middle of the floorboard." In response to further questioning, he testified that he did not have to open the car door to see the marijuana because the passenger door was open and he could see the marijuana from where he was standing on the street.*fn2

In his motion to suppress, Munoz challenged: (1) the stop of the Geo; (2) the search of the Geo "upon the questionable pretext of a "search incident to that arrest‟ [of Pfisterer]"; (3) questioning Munoz without giving him Miranda warnings; and (4) searching Munoz without probable cause (Munoz testified that Pietrzak walked over to him, patted him down, and removed the marijuana out of Munoz‟s pocket). He sought to suppress "all items of evidence and all statements made." On September 5, 2006, the district court issued its decision and order denying Munoz‟s motion to suppress in its entirety.

Munoz ultimately pled guilty to the charge, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. He was sentenced to a suspended prison term and probation, and then timely appealed.

The appeal was first heard by the Idaho Court of Appeals. It held that a witness who testifies under oath to two irreconcilable descriptions of an event and does not give any explanation for the inconsistency cannot, as a matter of law, be credible. Therefore, all of Detective Pietrzak‟s testimony had to be, in essence, stricken. Without that testimony, the State failed to prove that the marijuana in the Geo was lawfully obtained. It had to be suppressed as did all other evidence as fruit of the presumptively unlawful vehicle search, including Munoz‟s statements and the marijuana from his pocket. The Court of Appeals then reversed the order denying Munoz‟s motion to suppress. The State filed a petition for review, which we granted. In cases that ...


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