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State of Idaho v. Troy Edwin Liechty

October 6, 2011

STATE OF IDAHO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
TROY EDWIN LIECHTY,
DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



Appeal from the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District, State of Idaho, Ada County. Hon. Deborah A. Bail, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Melanson, Judge

2011 Opinion No. 59

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

Order granting motion to suppress, affirmed.

The State of Idaho appeals from the district court's order granting Troy Edwin Liechty's motion to suppress. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURE

The following facts were revealed at the hearing on the motion to suppress. On the morning of March 15, 2010, a patrol officer observed a vehicle parked along the side of the road in a dirt lot. The vehicle, which belonged to Liechty, was facing a canal and the backyards of neighborhood homes. Concerned about the location of the vehicle in relation to the homes, the officer pulled his patrol car into the dirt lot behind Liechty's vehicle without activating the overhead lights or siren. The officer approached the parked vehicle on foot and noticed that a sleeping bag completely covered the vehicle's rear window. The officer also observed that the passenger side window was partially covered by a shade screen. However, upon reaching the passenger window, the officer could see Liechty sitting in the driver's seat. Liechty appeared to be holding something in his hand. The officer tapped on the passenger window, and Liechty leaned across the passenger seat to remove the window shade. At that moment, concerned for his safety and wanting to make sure Liechty did not have a weapon in his hands, the officer opened Liechty's passenger door.

Upon opening the door, the officer noticed that the object in Liechty's hand was a small flashlight. Standing in the open passenger doorway, the officer asked Liechty what he was doing parked in the dirt lot and if Liechty had any identification or weapons in the vehicle. Liechty responded that there was a kitchen knife under the backseat. Once a second officer arrived, the officer ordered Liechty out of the vehicle and the second officer placed Liechty in handcuffs. The officer subsequently located the knife in Liechty's vehicle, arrested Liechty for possession of a concealed weapon, and secured Liechty in his patrol car. The second officer searched Liechty's vehicle for additional weapons and discovered methamphetamine. Liechty was charged with possession of a controlled substance, I.C. § 37-2732(c), and concealing a dangerous weapon, I.C. §§ 18-3302(7) and (9). Prior to trial, Liechty filed a motion to suppress. The district court granted the motion, holding that Liechty was seized for purposes of the Fourth Amendment when the officer opened the car door, stood in the open doorway, and questioned Liechty. The district court therefore determined that the seizure was unlawful because it was not supported by reasonable suspicion. The state appeals.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The standard of review of a suppression motion is bifurcated. When a decision on a motion to suppress is challenged, we accept the trial court's findings of fact that are supported by substantial evidence, but we freely review the application of constitutional principles to the facts as found. State v. Atkinson, 128 Idaho 559, 561, 916 P.2d 1284, 1286 (Ct. App. 1996). At a suppression hearing, the power to assess the credibility of witnesses, resolve factual conflicts, weigh evidence, and draw factual inferences is vested in the trial court. State v. Valdez-Molina, 127 Idaho 102, 106, 897 P.2d 993, 997 (1995); State v. Schevers, 132 Idaho 786, 789, 979 P.2d 659, 662 (Ct. App. 1999).

III. ANALYSIS

The state argues that the district court's conclusion that a seizure occurred was clearly erroneous. In its memorandum decision and order granting Liechty's motion to suppress, the district court first found that, when the officer opened Liechty's passenger door, the officer did so without consent. The district court went on to rule that, under the circumstances of this case, Liechty was seized when the officer opened the car door and stood in the open doorway questioning Liechty because no reasonable person would feel free not to talk to a police officer in such a situation. In support of this ruling, the district court found that the officer placed himself in a position in the open passenger doorway that prevented Liechty from driving away. The district court additionally ruled that the officer did not possess a reasonable articulable suspicion that Liechty was engaged in criminal activity prior to opening the passenger door. Specifically, the district court stated that the only fact known to the officer at the time that he opened the door was the location of a legally parked car in broad daylight.

The state does not assert on appeal that reasonable suspicion existed to support a seizure of Liechty when the officer opened the passenger door and stood in the open doorway. Rather, the state challenges the district court's conclusion that a seizure occurred in the first place. Specifically, the state argues that there was no evidence presented at the motion hearing to support the district court's finding that the officer placed himself in a position in Liechty's open passenger doorway that prevented Liechty from driving away. The state also argues that there was insufficient evidence to support the district court's conclusion that a seizure occurred because Liechty did not allege that the officer's position in the open passenger doorway communicated to Liechty that he was not free to leave. The state finally asserts that the officer's presence in the doorway did not constitute a seizure because it did not communicate to Liechty that he was detained. In the alternative, if this Court determines that a seizure took place, the state contends that suppression was not warranted based on the doctrines of attenuation and inevitable discovery.

Initially, we conclude that there was substantial evidence to support the district court's finding that the officer placed himself in a position in Liechty's open passenger doorway that prevented Liechty from driving away. At the hearing on the motion to suppress, Liechty testified that, when the officer opened the passenger door, the officer stood in the open doorway and began asking questions, "Face to face, pretty much." The officer testified that, when he opened the passenger door, he could see the entire front passenger compartment, including the driver and passenger side. The officer also testified that, once Liechty admitted there was a knife in the vehicle, he maintained his position of contact with Liechty and did not move around the vehicle so he could watch Liechty while he waited for a second officer to arrive. The state also presented photographs of the vehicle and its location at the time of Liechty's encounter with the officer. The photographs depict Liechty's vehicle parked in such a way that it was reasonable for the district court to infer that Liechty could not have pulled forward to terminate his conversation with the officer and could not have backed out of the dirt lot without causing possible injury to the officer standing in the open passenger doorway. The power to draw factual inferences was vested in the district court, and the record supports the district court's reasonable conclusion that the officer placed himself in a position in Liechty's open passenger doorway that prevented Liechty from driving away.

We note that a defendant's subjective belief regarding whether he or she was free to leave during an encounter with the police is not controlling when determining whether a seizure has occurred. See State v. Nelson, 134 Idaho 675, 679, 8 P.3d 670, 674 (Ct. App. 2000) (scope of Fourth Amendment protection does not vary with the state of mind of the individual being approached). The district court's task is to determine, based on the totality of the circumstances, whether a reasonable person would feel free to decline to cooperate with police. Id. at 678-79, 8 P.3d at 673-74. Thus, Liechty's lack of testimony that the officer's position in the open passenger doorway communicated to Liechty that he was not free to leave does not render the district court's conclusion that a seizure occurred erroneous.

We turn next to the state's argument that the officer's presence in the doorway did not constitute a seizure because it did not communicate to Liechty that he was detained. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and its counterpart, Article I, Section 17 of the Idaho Constitution, guarantee the right of every citizen to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, not all encounters between the police and citizens involve the seizure of a person. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19 n.16 (1968); State v. Jordan, 122 Idaho 771, 772, 839 P.2d 38, 39 (Ct. App. 1992). Only when an officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, restrains the liberty of a citizen may a court conclude that a seizure has occurred. State v. Fry, 122 Idaho 100, 102, 831 P.2d 942, 944 (Ct. App. 1991). A seizure does not occur simply because a police officer approaches an individual on the street or other public place, by asking if the individual is willing to answer some questions, or by putting forth questions if the individual is willing to listen. Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434-35 (1991); Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 497 (1983). Unless and until there is a detention, there is no seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and no constitutional rights have been infringed. Royer, 460 U.S. at 498. Even when officers have no basis for suspecting a particular individual, they may generally ask the individual questions and ask to examine identification. Fry, 122 Idaho at 102, 831 P.2d at 944. So long as police do not convey a message that compliance with their requests is required, the encounter is deemed consensual and no reasonable suspicion is required. Id.

The United States Supreme Court, in United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980) stated:

Examples of circumstances that might indicate seizure, even where the person did not attempt to leave, would be the threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical touching of the person of the citizen, or the use of language or tone of voice ...


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