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People v. Shoen

Court of Appeals of Colorado

June 5, 2017

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellant
Bernard James Shoen, Defendant-Appellee

         Interlocutory Appeal from the District Court Montrose County District Court Case No. 15CR351 Honorable Mary E. Deganhart, Judge

          Attorneys for Plaintiff-Appellant: Dan Hotsenpiller, District Attorney, Seventh Judicial District Kurt Beckenhauer, Deputy District Attorney Montrose, Colorado

          Attorneys for Defendant-Appellee: Douglas K. Wilson, Public Defender Zachary Martin, Deputy Public Defender Montrose, Colorado

         EN BANC



          ¶1 In this interlocutory appeal, the People ask us to consider whether the trial court erred in suppressing evidence. Specifically, we must decide whether defendant Bernard James Shoen's encounter with police, during which he confessed to possessing a controlled substance, was consensual or whether it constituted an impermissible seizure under the Fourth Amendment. We conclude that the encounter was consensual. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's order suppressing Shoen's statements and the evidence seized from his truck, and we remand to that court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2 Just after 1 a.m. on December 5, 2015, Sergeant Witte and Officer Trimble of the

         Montrose Police Department were on patrol near a self-storage center. The officers saw an open storage unit with a pickup truck parked in front, and they stopped to investigate because there had recently been break-ins in the area. The officers parked their patrol car a few units down from the open unit, shined a light on the truck, and walked toward the open unit on foot.

         ¶3 Sergeant Witte then saw Shoen in the open storage unit, and asked whether he and Officer Trimble could speak with him. Sergeant Witte informed Shoen that they were the police and that he was not in trouble, but they had decided to stop and talk after seeing the open storage unit because of the recent break-ins. Shoen agreed to talk to the officers and said that the storage unit was his. The officers noticed that the license plates on Shoen's tuck were expired and ran Shoen's plates and driver's license. They talked with Shoen while they waited, and the tone of the officers' voices was casual. The officers told Shoen that the license plates on his truck were expired, his driver's license was revoked, and his truck was not insured. They advised him that he should not drive and should call someone to pick him up. Further, they told him that they would impound his truck if he were to drive it.

         ¶4 Sergeant Witte then asked Shoen whether anything in his truck was stolen and Shoen responded, "No, not as far as I know." Sergeant Witte asked Shoen whether he would mind pulling the tarp back that was covering his truck bed but clarified that "you don't have to." Shoen immediately responded that he wouldn't mind, stood up, and pulled the tarp off the bed of his truck. After briefly examining the contents of the truck bed, Sergeant Witte asked Shoen whether there were any drugs in the truck, and Shoen responded that he had found a "rig" in the truck "the other day." Sergeant Witte then asked Shoen to stop wasting their time, do the right thing, and tell them what type of drug was in the truck. The Sergeant asked if it was "dope" or methamphetamine and asked how much methamphetamine was in the truck. Shoen then told the officers that there was a "little bit" of methamphetamine in his truck. In response, the officers began searching the cab of Shoen's truck.[1] Sergeant Witte asked where the methamphetamine was, and Shoen directed the officers' search of the cab to a box containing methamphetamine. The officers found the methamphetamine approximately twenty- five minutes after first approaching Shoen. They never touched Shoen nor directed his movements in any way.

         ¶5 The People charged Shoen with possession of a controlled substance. In response, Shoen sought to suppress both his admission and the evidence that the officers discovered during their search of his truck. He argued that both were obtained "from an illegal investigatory stop" in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The People responded that the evidence was admissible because the officers' encounter with Shoen was consensual, Shoen's statements were voluntary, and their search was supported by probable cause arising from Shoen's admission that he had drugs in the truck.

         ¶6 The trial court granted Shoen's motion, concluding that although the initial encounter was consensual, Sergeant Witte's continued questioning after he advised Shoen not to drive became increasingly coercive and converted the consensual encounter into an impermissible seizure. The court reasoned that the circumstances surrounding Shoen's confession indicated that a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave if he did not respond to the officers' questions, and thus, the encounter was no longer voluntary after the officers advised Shoen not to drive. Therefore, the court concluded that all evidence obtained after the officers continued to question Shoen after advising him not to drive was fruit of the poisonous tree and had to be suppressed. Hence, the trial court suppressed both Shoen's statements about possessing the drugs and the drugs themselves.[2]

         ¶7 We now consider the People's interlocutory appeal challenging the ...

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