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Hunnicutt-Carter v. State

Supreme Court of Wyoming

August 29, 2013

Ralph Laverne HUNNICUTT-CARTER, Appellant (Defendant),
v.
The STATE of Wyoming, Appellee (Plaintiff).

Page 848

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 849

Representing Appellant: Diane Lozano, State Public Defender; Tina N. Olson, Chief Appellate Counsel; David E. Westling, Senior Assistant Appellate Counsel; Wyoming Public Defender Program. Argument by Mr. Westling.

Representing Appellee: Gregory A. Phillips, Wyoming Attorney General; David L. Delicath, Deputy Attorney General; Theodore R. Racines, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Prof. Darrell D. Jackson, Faculty Director; Emily N. Thomas, Student Director; and Courtney Gilbert, Student Intern, of the Prosecution Assistance Clinic. Argument by Ms. Gilbert.

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

DAVIS, Justice.

[¶ 1] Appellant Ralph Laverne Hunnicutt-Carter entered a conditional plea to a charge of felony possession of methamphetamine, thereby reserving the right to appeal the district court's denial of his motion to suppress the results of a vehicle inventory which yielded the methamphetamine. Appellant contends that impoundment of the vehicle was unnecessary under the circumstances, and that the search was conducted in bad faith. He also claims that police officers should be required to inquire into less intrusive means of safeguarding a vehicle before inventorying one in anticipation of impoundment.

[¶ 2] We hold that inventory of a vehicle's contents pending impoundment is constitutional when it is authorized by statute or when it is conducted pursuant to the general policy of a law enforcement agency. In this case, a state trooper had both a statutory basis to impound a vehicle whose driver had been arrested, and he was also required to inventory the vehicle's contents before impounding it by a general Wyoming Highway Patrol policy. We also find that the district court's ruling that the trooper acted in good faith is supported by the record and is not therefore clearly erroneous. Consequently, we affirm.

ISSUE

[¶ 3] Did the district court err in denying Appellant's motion to suppress the results of an inventory search preceding the planned impoundment of a vehicle but after its driver had been arrested?

FACTS

[¶ 4] Shortly after midnight on April 5, 2012, Highway Patrol Trooper Scott Templeton observed a Chevrolet Cavalier which appeared to be travelling above the posted speed limit on Highway 51 outside of Gillette,

Page 850

Wyoming. He confirmed by radar that the car was speeding at 74 miles per hour in a 55 mile per hour zone and made a traffic stop. Hunnicutt-Carter was alone in the vehicle. He had no driver's license or proof of insurance, but provided his vehicle registration, and told the officer his name and date of birth.

[¶ 5] Templeton left Hunnicut-Carter in his vehicle and contacted his dispatcher from his patrol car. The dispatcher advised him that Hunnicutt-Carter had an outstanding warrant from Campbell County.[1] Templeton confirmed the validity of the warrant with the dispatcher, arrested Hunnicutt-Carter, and placed him in the patrol car. According to the police report, only eleven minutes transpired between the initial stop and the arrest.

[¶ 6] Trooper Templeton planned to impound the vehicle as required by Highway Patrol policy, and pursuant to that policy he conducted what was intended to be a pre-impoundment inventory of the vehicle. He discovered a small plastic bag of a crystalline substance he suspected to be methamphetamine in the driver's console. He also found an unlocked strongbox which contained five more baggies of suspected methamphetamine, a syringe, a glass pipe, a digital scale, several cotton swabs, and a spoon in the front passenger seat area. A field test indicated that the baggies in fact contained crystal methamphetamine. This was later confirmed by laboratory testing.

[¶ 7] Hunnicutt-Carter's father arrived to take possession of the vehicle shortly after Trooper Templeton completed the inventory which revealed the drugs and paraphernalia, but before a tow truck arrived to take the vehicle to an impoundment yard. Hunnicutt-Carter had called his father to ask him to pick the vehicle up while Trooper Templeton was in his patrol car checking for warrants. Trooper Templeton released the vehicle to Appellant's father, and he drove it away. Appellant ...


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