Monday, February 06, 2012

Summary 2012 WY 14

Summary of Decision February 6, 2012

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Summaries are prepared by Law Librarians and are not official statements of the Wyoming Supreme Court

Case Name: Joseph Randall Owens v. The State of Wyoming

Citation: 2012 WY 14

Docket Number: S-11-0184


Appeal from the District Court of Campbell County, the Honorable John R. Perry, Judge.

Representing Appellant (Defendant): Diane M. Lozano, State Public Defender; Tina N. Olson, Appellate Counsel; Eric M. Alden, Senior Assistant Appellate Counsel.

Representing Appellee (Plaintiff): Gregory A. Phillips, Attorney General; Terry L. Armitage, Deputy Attorney General; D. Michael Pauling, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Stewart M. Young, Director, and Joshua B. Taylor, Student Director, Prosecution Assistance Program, University of Wyoming, College of Law.

Date of Decision: February 6, 2012

Facts: Appellant, Joseph Randall Owens, entered a conditional guilty plea to felony possession of methamphetamine in violation of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 35-7-1031(c)(ii). He reserved the right to appeal the constitutionality of the search that resulted in discovery of the methamphetamine.

Issues: Appellant presents the following issue: Should the motion to suppress evidence seized in a warrantless search of Appellant’s containers have been granted?

Holdings: Appellant contends that evidence of methamphetamine seized from his backpack should have been suppressed because it was discovered during an unlawful search. He claims that the search of his backpack was unreasonable because there was no connection between his medical emergency and the search. Under the circumstances presented, however, the Court found that the search was reasonable.

The responding officer was presented with an emergency situation when, upon entering Appellant’s motel room, he found Appellant convulsing on the floor. Appellant was unable to communicate with the officer and did not respond to the officer’s attempts to gain his attention. During the encounter, Appellant’s eyes were extremely wide and periodically rolled to the back of his head. The officer was unable to gather any pertinent information about Appellant’s condition from Appellant’s acquaintance. Under these circumstances, it was reasonable for the officer to search Appellant’s backpack, as well as the containers found therein, in an attempt to aid Appellant. Despite the subsequent arrival of emergency medical personnel, it was reasonable for the officer, who had also received training as an emergency medical technician, to seek identification indicating a specific medical condition, emergency medication to alleviate Appellant’s seizure, or substances that may have contributed to Appellant’s condition. The officer’s discovery of methamphetamine prompted the medical technicians to treat Appellant for a suspected drug overdose. Based on the totality of the circumstances, the Court found that the State satisfied its burden of establishing specific and articulable facts showing that the search was justified pursuant to the officer’s community caretaker function.

Appellant asserted that the officer’s seizure of a cardboard box from his friend’s motel room showed that the officer engaged in a “general exploratory search” that was “related to the emergency only as a matter of fortuitous opportunity.” The Court agreed that the officer’s search of the adjoining motel room was unrelated to the exigencies created by Appellant’s emergency. However, the fact that the officer retrieved a cardboard box from the neighboring motel room did not undermine the conclusion that the officer’s search of Appellant’s backpack was objectively reasonable. The search of the trash can in the neighboring room, conducted after Appellant had been transported to the hospital, had no bearing on the reasonableness of the officer’s search at the time of Appellant’s emergency. Further, the issuance of the search warrant for Appellant’s room was not in any measure based on evidence discovered during the officer’s search of the neighboring room. The officer’s affidavit in support of the warrant to search Appellant’s motel room made no reference to his search or observations in the adjoining room. While the facts may present a question as to whether the search in the adjoining room was lawful with respect to Appellant’s friend’s Fourth Amendment rights, Appellant did not demonstrate that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his friend’s room and, as a result, he did not have standing to challenge that search. Affirmed.

Justice Burke delivered the opinion for the court.

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