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Lovato v. State

March 26, 2010

JACOB LOVATO, APPELLANT (DEFENDANT),
v.
THE STATE OF WYOMING, APPELLEE (PLAINTIFF).



Appeal from the District Court of Carbon County, The Honorable Wade E. Waldrip, Judge.

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

Before VOIGT, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, KITE, and BURKE, JJ.

[¶1] Jacob Lovato entered a conditional guilty plea to two drug-related charges, reserving his right to appeal the denial of the suppression motion. In this appeal, he challenges the district court‟s decision. We will affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] Mr. Lovato presents this two-part issue:

The trial court erred in finding that (1) there was "probable cause" to conduct a traffic stop of Appellant‟s car; and (2) the scope of the traffic stop was not exceeded by the trooper‟s actions.

FACTS

[¶3] This overview of the facts is based largely on the district court‟s decision letter, in which it explained why it was denying Mr. Lovato‟s suppression motion. On the morning of March 19, 2008, Trooper Jason Green of the Wyoming Highway Patrol was not on duty, but had stopped at his office to take care of some paperwork. He was contacted by Special Agent Eric Ford of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, who had been tipped by a confidential informant that a man named Jacob Lovato was driving around town in a maroon-colored Buick sedan, and was in possession of a large amount of methamphetamine and cocaine. Trooper Green contacted Trooper Jacob Cheser, asked him to watch for the vehicle, and suggested making a traffic stop if Trooper Cheser could find a basis for it.

[¶4] Trooper Cheser was in his patrol car when he saw a maroon Buick sedan coming toward him in the opposite lane of traffic. As they passed, Trooper Cheser observed a crack in the windshield of the vehicle. After passing, Trooper Cheser watched the vehicle in his rearview mirror, and noticed a tinted cover over the license plate. He turned the patrol car around and followed the vehicle. He was unable to read the license plate number until he was very close behind it. Trooper Cheser initiated a traffic stop based on the cracked windshield and the obscured license plate. After talking to Mr. Lovato, Trooper Cheser said he was going to issue him a warning ticket.

[¶5] While Trooper Cheser was in his patrol car filling out the warning ticket, Trooper Green arrived with his drug detection dog. Though he had not been on duty, he had received his supervisor‟s approval to have his dog sniff Mr. Lovato‟s vehicle. According to Trooper Green, the dog alerted at the doors on both sides of the car. Trooper Green informed Trooper Cheser, who asked Mr. Lovato and the passenger to get out of the car. He patted them down for weapons, and found none. He placed Mr. Lovato in Trooper Green‟s patrol car, and the passenger in his patrol car. The Troopers then searched Mr. Lovato‟s car, and discovered a small digital scale with traces of white powder on it.

[¶6] Suspecting that the white powder on the scale was an illegal drug, Trooper Green began questioning Mr. Lovato. He conducted a more thorough pat-down search, but found nothing. He told Mr. Lovato to return to his vehicle while Trooper Cheser finished writing the warning ticket. As Mr. Lovato walked back to the car, Trooper Green observed that he walked stiff-legged with his hand holding his groin area. Now suspicious that he had missed something during the pat-down search, Trooper Green asked Mr. Lovato to stop and place his hands on top of the patrol car. Trooper Green shook Mr. Lovato‟s pants, and a pill bottle fell to the ground. Inside was a crystalline substance that turned out to be methamphetamine.

[¶7] Mr. Lovato was arrested. Upon reaching the detention center, Trooper Green told Mr. Lovato that if he had any more illegal drugs with him, he could face additional charges if he took them into the detention center. Mr. Lovato indicated he had something in his right shoe. Trooper Green removed the shoe, and inside it found a plastic bag containing 23 bindles of cocaine.

[¶8] At some time not specified in the record, Special Agent Bisceglia of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation also arrived at the scene. After Mr. Lovato‟s arrest, Agent Bisceglia drove Mr. Lovato‟s car to an impound area. He testified that he also observed the crack in the windshield and the dark plastic cover over the rear license plate.

[¶9] Mr. Lovato was initially charged with two counts of felony possession of controlled substances, two counts of possession with intent to deliver, and four counts of conspiracy to deliver controlled substances. Two of the conspiracy counts were soon dismissed by the prosecution. Among other pre-trial pleadings, Mr. Lovato filed a motion to suppress, asserting that there was no probable cause for the traffic stop, so that his subsequent detention, the search of his car, and the search of his person were unreasonable in scope. After a hearing was conducted, the district court denied the suppression motion. Mr. Lovato pleaded guilty to one felony count of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver, and one felony count of possession of cocaine with intent to deliver, both in violation of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 35-7-1031(a)(i) (LexisNexis 2007). The prosecution dismissed the remaining counts. Mr. Lovato was sentenced to two to eight years in prison. That sentence was suspended, and he was placed on three years of supervised probation.

[¶10] Mr. Lovato entered the guilty pleas on the condition that he would be allowed to appeal the district court‟s denial of his suppression motion. He ...


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