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People v. Sotelo

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

October 14, 2014

the People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellant:
v.
Melissa S. Sotelo, Defendant-Appellee:

Interlocutory Appeal from the District Court. Jefferson County District Court Case No. 13CR1954, Honorable Christopher J. Munch, Judge.

SYLLABUS

In this interlocutory appeal, the supreme court addresses whether an unauthorized driver of a rental car has standing to challenge the constitutionality of a state trooper's search of gift-wrapped packages within the car following a traffic stop. The supreme court holds that under the totality of the circumstances, the defendant had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the packages and therefore had standing to contest the search of those packages, even though she was not authorized to drive the rental car. The supreme court affirms the trial court's order suppressing evidence of marijuana concealed in the packages.

For Plaintiff-Appellant: Peter A. Weir, District Attorney, First Judicial District, Donna Skinner Reed, Chief Appellate Deputy District Attorney, Golden, Colorado.

For Defendant-Appellee: Douglas K. Wilson, Public Defender, Kelly K. Burgett, Deputy Public Defender, Golden, Colorado.

JUSTICE HOOD delivered the Opinion of the Court. JUSTICE BOATRIGHT dissents.

OPINION

Page 189

HOOD, JUSTICE.

[¶1] This interlocutory appeal presents the first opportunity for this court to address whether an unauthorized driver of a rental car may have standing to challenge the constitutionality of a search of personal packages within that rental car.

[¶2] A state trooper pulled over the defendant while she was driving a rental car that she was not authorized to drive. While impounding the car at the rental car company's request, the trooper who stopped her discovered three suspicious gift-wrapped packages, one on the back seat and two in the trunk. At the tow yard, a K-9 police dog alerted the trooper that the trunk contained drugs. The trooper used this positive dog sniff to obtain a warrant, the execution of which revealed 57 pounds of marijuana.

Page 190

[¶3] The trial court suppressed this marijuana evidence because the packages had been detained for an unreasonable amount of time -- over 90 minutes -- before the K-9 alerted and the trooper thus obtained probable cause for the search. The People now challenge the trial court's suppression order, arguing that the defendant did not have standing to contest the detention and search of the packages because she was not authorized to drive the rental car.

[¶4] We hold that under the totality of the circumstances, the defendant had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the gift-wrapped packages that the trooper detained following her traffic stop. She therefore had standing to contest the search of those packages, even though she was not authorized to drive the rental car. Consequently, we affirm the suppression order.

I. Facts and Procedural History

[¶5] On July 18, 2013, a Colorado State Patrol (" CSP" ) trooper stopped the defendant, Melissa Sotelo, on Interstate 70. The trooper informed Sotelo that she was driving too slowly in the left passing lane without making a left-hand turn or passing other vehicles.

[¶6] Sotelo was driving a rental car with California license plates and was accompanied by a passenger, Janelle Mireles.[1] During the traffic stop, Sotelo provided the trooper with a Hertz rental agreement indicating that Patrick Schooler had rented the car on July 11, 2013, in Fresno, California, with no additional authorized drivers. The rental agreement provided an estimate of charges based on a return date and time of July 18, 2013, at 10:05 p.m., with extra daily and hourly charges to be assessed if the renter returned the car after that date and time.[2] The car had not been reported as stolen.

[¶7] Sotelo acknowledged that she did not know Schooler personally but stated that Mireles had been friends with him for a few months. The trooper contacted Hertz, and a company representative asked him to impound the rental car.

[¶8] The trooper then questioned Sotelo and Mireles separately. Both women said they were driving from California to Maryland for the weekend to take birthday presents to Sotelo's daughter in Washington, D.C. But they gave varying accounts of the number and duration of stops along the way.

[¶9] The trooper called for a tow truck and, while awaiting its arrival, conducted a detailed inventory of the car's contents per CSP policy. Among other items, the inventory revealed three gift-wrapped packages. One box on the back seat measured about two-feet by two-feet by two-feet. Two identical-size boxes in the trunk measured about two-feet wide by three-feet long by one-foot tall.

[¶10] When asked what was in the boxes, Sotelo said that they contained clothes and a microphone or singing machine, a large baby stroller with a car seat, and a baby bath. Mireles provided a similar description. The trooper became suspicious because, in his estimation, the size of the gift-wrapped packages did not match their purported contents. The trooper therefore asked the women for consent to open the gift-wrapped packages. They refused.

[¶11] Sotelo and Mireles accompanied the rental car to the tow yard. The trooper then allowed them to leave but would not let Sotelo take the packages until a K-9 police dog did a " free air search" around the car. Because no K-9 was immediately available, the trooper had to wait another 90 minutes

Page 191

for a handler to bring one from Greeley. Almost three hours after the initial stop, the K-9 alerted to the trunk of the car, indicating the presence of a controlled substance. Sotelo and Mireles returned after the K-9 conducted its search, at which time the trooper advised them that he was requesting a search warrant. Again, the women left.

[¶12] After CSP obtained the warrant, it conducted a search exposing that all three boxes simply camouflaged vacuum-sealed bags, the contents of which tested positive for marijuana (57 pounds in total).

[¶13] When Sotelo returned the next morning to retrieve her belongings, CSP arrested her. The district attorney later charged her with possession with intent to distribute at least 5 pounds, but not more than 100 pounds, of marijuana.

[¶14] The trial court found that the trooper had probable cause to search the packages after the K-9 alert. Nevertheless, the trial court granted Sotelo's motion to suppress them because CSP detained the packages too long. In reaching its decision, the trial court rejected the People's arguments regarding standing as " inapposite," emphasizing that " [t]he defendant always took the position that the packages were in her possession and were gifts she was taking to her daughter." [3]

[¶15] Later, in a supplement to its order granting the motion to suppress, the trial court refused to allow the People to introduce additional evidence concerning the car rental (including a copy of the rental car agreement) because " it would do no more than confirm facts which the court has already found to be true."

[¶16] The People appealed the trial court's suppression order under section 16-12-102(1), C.R.S. (2013), and C.A.R. 4.1. The People ask this court to consider " [w]hether the trial court erred in finding that [the] defendant as the unauthorized driver of a rental car had standing to contest the detention and search of the gift wrapped packages which were in the car."

II. Analysis

[¶17] We evaluate for the first time whether the unauthorized driver of a rental car has standing to challenge a search of packages within that rental car. After articulating the applicable standard of review for a suppression order, we discuss standing under the Fourth Amendment. Next, we evaluate this standard in the rental car context and explain that standing exists when a defendant, under the totality of the circumstances, has a legitimate expectation of privacy in the subject of the search--here, the gift-wrapped packages. Applying this legal standard, we agree with the trial court that Sotelo had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the packages, affording her standing to challenge the search and seizure. We therefore affirm the suppression order.

A. Standard of Review

[¶18] When reviewing a suppression order, we defer to the trial court's findings of fact if they are supported by competent evidence in the record. People v. Quezada,731 P.2d 730, 732 (Colo. 1987). We review the trial court's legal conclusions de novo and reverse if the trial court applied an erroneous legal standard or came to a conclusion of constitutional law that is not ...


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