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State v. Smith

Court of Appeals of Utah

May 2, 2019

State of Utah, Appellee,
Brett Thomas Smith, Appellant.

          Third District Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Vernice S. Trease No. 171902685

          Stephen R. Frazier and Douglas J. Thompson, Attorneys for Appellant

          Sean D. Reyes and Marian Decker, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge Ryan M. Harris authored this Opinion, in which Judge Michele M. Christiansen Forster concurred. Judge Jill M. Pohlman dissented, with opinion.


          HARRIS, Judge.

         ¶1 Brett Thomas Smith fell asleep in his car in a McDonald's parking lot in the wee hours of the morning, and refused to leave the premises even after he was asked to do so. Police soon arrived, and in the process of waking him up detected alcohol on his breath. Smith was later charged with driving under the influence (DUI), and moved to suppress all evidence discovered that night on the ground that he was unreasonably seized in violation of the United States Constitution. The district court denied that motion, determining that the seizure was justified by the community caretaking doctrine. Smith appeals that decision, and we affirm.


         ¶2 In the wee hours of a cold December morning in 2016, several employees of a McDonald's restaurant in West Valley City, Utah noticed that a man-who was later identified as Smith-appeared to be asleep in his car, which was parked in the restaurant's parking lot with the motor running. The restaurant's shift manager (Manager) went out to the parking lot and attempted to wake Smith and tell him that he needed to leave, but Smith did not respond to verbal entreaties. Manager then knocked on the car's window and was finally able to rouse Smith and asked him to leave the premises. Smith then pulled out of the parking spot, drove around the building, and re-parked in the same parking lot. Manager then informed his co-manager that Smith had not left the premises as requested, and one of them notified the police.[1]

         ¶3 Police officers responded to the scene after receiving a dispatch call that a welfare check was needed at McDonald's. Specifically, the dispatch call notes mentioned that there was a "male, slumped over the wheel, [who] appeared to be sleeping," and the first officer (First Officer) to arrive on the scene later testified that the dispatch call he received informed him that "an individual . . . was driving their car around the parking lot multiple times, and then had fallen asleep at the wheel in a parking stall."[2] When First Officer arrived, he immediately located the vehicle in question, and noticed that "the vehicle was on and running." Based on all of the information he had, First Officer made the decision to park behind Smith's vehicle in such a way that would have made it difficult for Smith to exit the parking stall, and waited for other officers before making contact. As he waited, First Officer observed that Smith was "hunched over the center console," and that he was "not awake." In addition, First Officer shined a spotlight on Smith's car to ascertain whether Smith was its only occupant. When the next officer (Second Officer) arrived on scene, he observed a parked car with its motor running in which a male occupant was slumped over the wheel, apparently asleep. Second Officer parked his patrol car alongside Smith's vehicle. Either First Officer or Second Officer was accompanied by a third officer; in total, three police officers were on scene.

         ¶4 All three officers exited their vehicles, and approached Smith's vehicle. As they did so, they were wearing their typical police gear, but they never activated the emergency lights on their police vehicles, and there is no indication in the record that any of the officers ever unholstered any weapon. The officers knocked on Smith's car window multiple times in an attempt to wake him. When Smith eventually awoke, the officers asked him to open his door, and he complied.

         ¶5 Once the door was opened, the officers "smell[ed] the odor of alcohol on [Smith's] breath." Second Officer asked Smith to step out and perform field sobriety tests, and Smith complied. The results of the tests indicated that Smith was likely intoxicated. Second Officer also learned, upon checking Smith's driver license in a database, that Smith's license had been revoked. The officers arrested Smith and read him his Miranda[3]rights, after which Smith admitted that he had consumed enough alcohol to make him believe that he was over the legal limit. The officers took Smith to the West Valley City police station where they administered a breathalyzer test, which indicated that Smith's blood-alcohol content was .135, well over the legal limit. Smith was later charged with driving under the influence of alcohol with prior convictions, a third-degree felony; operating a vehicle as an alcohol restricted driver, a class B misdemeanor; and driving on a suspended or revoked license, a class B misdemeanor.

         ¶6 Smith filed a motion to suppress his statements as well as the results of the field sobriety and breathalyzer tests, alleging that the evidence was obtained by virtue of an illegal seizure. Smith asserted that the facts did not justify the seizure, arguing that the officers did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe a crime had been committed. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied Smith's motion, ruling that, although the officers had indeed seized Smith, the seizure was justified under the community caretaking doctrine.

         ¶7 Following the court's denial of his motion to suppress, Smith entered a conditional guilty plea[4] to the felony DUI charge, and the State agreed to dismiss the remaining counts. As part of his conditional plea, Smith retained his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress, which right Smith now exercises by challenging that decision on appeal.


         ¶8 "We review a [district] court's decision to grant or deny a motion to suppress for an alleged Fourth Amendment violation as a mixed question of law and fact." State v. Fuller, 2014 UT 29, ¶ 17, 332 P.3d 937. Under this standard, "[w]hile the court's factual findings are reviewed for clear error, its legal conclusions are reviewed for correctness, including its application of law to the facts of the case." Id.


         ¶9 The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution "does not prohibit all police seizures." State v. Anderson, 2015 UT 90, ¶ 25, 362 P.3d 1232. Instead, it prohibits only "unreasonable" seizures. See U.S. Const. amend. IV (stating that citizens have a right "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures"). In this case, the parties do not contest the fact that the officers seized Smith in the McDonald's parking lot. The question presented in this case, then, is whether that seizure was reasonable. Smith argues that his seizure was unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional, and that the evidence discovered pursuant to that seizure must be excluded. See Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643, 660 (1961) (determining that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment would be excluded from a defendant's criminal trial). The State, by contrast, asserts that the officers' seizure of Smith was reasonable, and justified by the community caretaking doctrine. We agree with the State.

         ¶10 "The reasonableness of a seizure under the Fourth Amendment is determined by balancing its intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate government interests." Anderson, 2015 UT 90, ¶ 25 (quotation simplified). "Greater intrusions upon an individual's freedom of movement require a concomitant greater showing of a legitimate government interest to justify the intrusion, while a lesser intrusion may be justified by a lesser showing of a government interest." Id. For these reasons, "a highly intrusive arrest requires probable cause, while a less intrusive Terry stop requires a less stringent reasonable suspicion standard." Id. (referring to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21, 24-27 (1968)).

         ¶11 In one attempt to strike the appropriate balance, the United States Supreme Court has articulated the community caretaking doctrine. See Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 447-48 (1973); see also Anderson, 2015 UT 90, ¶ 26 (stating that "[t]his balancing between an individual's interest in being free from police intrusions and the State's legitimate interest in the public welfare . . . animates the community caretaking doctrine"). In Cady, the Court held that police officers' warrantless search of the trunk of a parked car did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the officers reasonably believed that the trunk contained a loaded gun that could endanger the public if it fell into the wrong hands. 413 U.S. at 447-48. The Court stated that officers "frequently investigate vehicle accidents in which there is no claim of criminal liability and engage in what, ...

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