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Andy Lee Lovato v. the State of Wyoming

January 31, 2012

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



Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County The Honorable Thomas T.C. Campbell, Judge S-11-0104

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

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

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in Pacific Reporter Third. Readers are requested to notify the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, of any typographical or other formal errors so that correction may be made before final publication in the permanent volume.

[¶1] The appellant, Andy Lee Lovato, entered a conditional guilty plea to one count of possession of methamphetamine. In this appeal, he claims the district court incorrectly concluded that his right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article 1 section 4 of the Wyoming Constitution was not violated when he was seized by the police. Finding no error, we affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] Whether the district court erred when it concluded that the appellant's rights under the United States and Wyoming constitutions were not violated when he was seized, arrested, and ultimately searched by the police.

FACTS

[¶3] On June 8, 2010, Detectives Willmarth and Sekerka with the Cheyenne Police Department began conducting surveillance on a house after receiving information that possible drug-related activity was occurring there. As the detectives approached the house, they saw a white Lincoln Town Car parked directly in front of the house, approximately 3-5 feet from the curb. An unidentified male was seated in the driver's seat of the car and the engine was running. There were no license plates on the car and, while there was a piece of white paper attached to the rear window of the car, the detectives could not read it. The detectives drove around the block and took a surveillance position where they could clearly see the car, although they did not have a clear view of the house. Shortly thereafter, a passenger entered the car and it left the residence.

[¶4] The detectives followed the Town Car in their unmarked vehicle with the hopes of identifying the occupants. While following the car, they observed the driver engage in several traffic violations, including an illegal lane change and failure to use a turn signal. The detectives requested a marked unit to pull the Town Car over for the traffic violations, but learned that no units were available in the area. They continued to follow the Town Car until it stopped abruptly in the middle of the road. The passenger of the Town Car exited the vehicle and stared intently at, and proceeded to walk toward, Detective Sekerka, who had gotten out of the passenger side of the unmarked police car. Detective Sekerka said, "Cheyenne Police. I need to talk to you, sir." The passenger continued to walk toward the detective until he got to the end of the Town Car, where he began to run away. After a short chase, Detective Sekerka caught up with the passenger and was eventually assisted by Detective Willmarth. The passenger struggled with the detectives, but was eventually placed in handcuffs and arrested for interference with a peace officer. During this time, the driver of the Town Car left the scene. Detective Willmarth conducted a pat-down search and discovered a red metal canister, which contained methamphetamine, a digital scale, and $180 in the passenger's left-front pocket. The passenger was identified as the appellant.

[¶5] The appellant filed a motion to suppress evidence, claiming he was seized by the detectives in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution and article 1 section 4 of the Wyoming Constitution. He argued that, at most, the interaction between himself and Detective Sekerka was a consensual encounter that he was free to terminate at any time. Therefore, the detectives did not have probable cause to arrest him for interference with a peace officer because the appellant was under no legal obligation to submit to Detective Sekerka's request. The district court disagreed and concluded that the detectives could have lawfully stopped the Town Car for the traffic violations and would have also had the authority to control the appellant's movements during the traffic stop.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶6] When reviewing a district court's decision to deny a motion to suppress, this Court uses a two-part standard of review. We will not disturb the district court's findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. Feeney v. State, 2009 WY 67, ¶ 9, 208 P.3d 50, 53 (Wyo. 2009). If the district court did not make a finding of fact on a specific issue, we will "uphold the general ruling of the court below if supported by any reasonable view of the evidence." Id. The issue of whether an unreasonable search or seizure occurred is a question of law we review de novo. Id. "A district court judgment may be affirmed on any proper legal grounds supported by the record." Id.

DISCUSSION

[ΒΆ7] The appellant does not appear to contend the detectives did not have the authority to pull the Town Car over for the observed traffic violations. Instead, he claims the detectives did not execute a traffic stop and, therefore, any authority the detectives may have had over a passenger in a traffic stop did not apply. Accordingly, the detectives needed reasonable suspicion of criminal activity separate from the traffic violations to justify the seizure. While we agree that the detectives did not execute a traffic stop, we hold that the detectives did have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify the ...


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