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People v. Pappan

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

September 10, 2018

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellant
v.
Michael Andrew Pappan. Defendant-Appellee

          Interlocutory Appeal from the District Court Las Animas County District Court Case No. 17CR193 Honorable Leslie J. Gerbracht, Judge

          Attorneys for Plaintiff-Appellant: Henry L. Solano, District Attorney, Third Judicial District Matthew P. Holmes, Deputy District Attorney Trinidad, Colorado

          Attorneys for Defendant-Appellee: Megan Ring, Public Defender Dariel Weaver, Deputy Public Defender Trinidad, Colorado

          OPINION

          SAMOUR JUSTICE

         ¶1 The People brought this interlocutory appeal pursuant to section 16-12-102(2), C.R.S. (2017), and C.A.R. 4.1, seeking review of the trial court's order suppressing evidence of two laser-sight rifles seized during a warrantless search of defendant Michael Pappan's residence. We now reverse the trial court's suppression order. We hold that the officers' warrantless search was justified by exigent circumstances. More specifically, we conclude: (1) that the officers had an objectively reasonable basis to believe there was an immediate need to protect their lives or safety, and (2) that the manner and scope of the search was reasonable. We further hold that the warrantless seizure of the laser-sight rifles was justified by the plain view doctrine.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2 Around 6:40 in the evening, an individual called 911 to report that he observed a man in the green house directly across the street pointing a laser-sight rifle at him. Apparently scared for his safety, after requesting assistance, the 911 caller left his residence in his car and parked nearby. Trinidad Police Department officers responded to the call shortly thereafter. Officer De La Fuente, among the first officers on scene, testified that she was familiar with the neighborhood and was aware that the 911 report was consistent with the types of crimes that are common in that area.

         ¶3 Upon arriving, the officers observed that a female standing on the front porch of the green house avoided them by immediately going inside the house and locking the screen door behind her, despite their commands to stop and their requests to talk to her. Officer De La Fuente followed her and tugged on the screen door to open it; she then asked the female to come outside and pulled her out to the porch. While standing just inside the doorway, Officer De La Fuente noticed a male, later identified as Pappan, running down the stairs from the second floor; he was yelling as he asked questions and made comments. The officer asked him to come out to the porch as well, and he did so. Because he disregarded another officer's commands while on the porch, he was placed in handcuffs and detained. Based on information the officers received from the female, they next called out for a child to come out of the house. A child exited, but only after multiple requests by the officers.

         ¶4 The atmosphere on the porch was chaotic. Further, none of the parties the officers had contacted had the laser-sight rifle referenced by the 911 caller, and the officers had not yet identified a suspect or obtained reliable information about whether there were other parties inside the residence.[1] Concerned for their safety, the officers "cleared" the house for other occupants. They made a peaceable entry into the house, albeit with their guns drawn. Inside, in an upstairs room, they saw in plain view and collected two laser-sight rifles. No other individuals were found in the house.

         ¶5 Pappan was subsequently charged with felony menacing, reckless endangerment, and disorderly conduct. Following a pretrial hearing, the trial court granted Pappan's motion to suppress evidence obtained during the search of his home, finding that "it would have been better practice for the police to obtain a search warrant." The People then filed this interlocutory appeal.

         II. Standard of Review

         ¶6 In reviewing an order addressing a motion to suppress evidence, we defer to the factual findings made by the trial court. People v. Funez-Paiagua, 2012 CO 37, ¶ 6, 276 P.3d 576, 578. So long as the trial court's factual findings are supported by competent evidence, we will not disturb them. Id. However, our review of the trial court's legal conclusions vis-à-vis the constitutionality of the challenged search and seizure is de novo. Id.; see also People v. Syrie, 101 P.3d 219, 222 (Colo. 2004) ("The legal conclusions of the trial court are subject to de novo review and reversal [is required] if the court applied an erroneous legal standard or came to a conclusion of constitutional law that is inconsistent with or unsupported by the factual findings.").

         III. Analysis

         ¶7 The People argue that the trial court erred in granting Pappan's motion to suppress because the exigent circumstances present, in conjunction with the plain view doctrine, justified the officers' warrantless search and seizure. We agree.[2]

         A. Relevant Law

         ¶8 The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article II, section 7 of the Colorado Constitution prohibit "all unreasonable searches and seizures." Mendez v. People, 986 P.2d 275, 279 (Colo. 1999). Although neither constitutional provision specifies when law enforcement must obtain a warrant before conducting a search, the United States Supreme Court has inferred from the text of the Fourth Amendment that "a warrant must generally be secured." Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 459 (2011). It is now "a bedrock principle . . . that 'searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.'" People v. Brunsting, 2013 CO 55, ¶ 18, 307 P.3d 1073, 1078 (quoting King, 563 U.S. at 459). But this presumption may be overcome in some situations. Id. at ¶ 19, 307 P.3d at 1078-79. Because the "ultimate touchstone" of search and seizure jurisprudence is reasonableness, there are certain exceptions to the warrant requirement. King, 563 U.S. at 459 (quoting Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006)). When police officers conduct a warrantless search, the People bear the burden of establishing that the search "is supported by probable cause and is justified under one of the narrowly defined exceptions to the warrant requirement." People v. Winpigler, 8 P.3d 439, 443 (Colo. 1999).

         ¶9 Pappan concedes that the People made "a clear showing of probable cause," and the record shows that the officers had probable cause to believe that a crime had been committed and that evidence of that crime, namely a laser-sight rifle, would be located in his residence. The parties disagree, however, on whether the People met their burden of demonstrating both that the exigent circumstances exception justified the warrantless search of Pappan's residence, and that the plain view exception justified the warrantless seizure of the two laser-sight rifles.

         ¶10 We have repeatedly acknowledged that there is an exception to the warrant requirement "when exigent circumstances exist that necessitate immediate police action." Id.; see also Brunsting, ¶ 25, 307 P.3d at 1079 (when exigent circumstances are present, "the public's interest in a timely police response . . . outweighs the individual's privacy interests."). In Brunsting, we held that "officer safety concerns fall within the exigent circumstances exception when (1) the officers have an objectively reasonable basis to believe there is an immediate need to protect the lives or safety of themselves or others, and (2) the manner and scope of the search is reasonable." Brunsting, ¶ 32, 307 P.3d at 1081. In applying the first part of this test, we considered "the totality of the circumstances . . . 'as they would have appeared to a prudent and trained police officer at the time of the challenged entry.'" Id. at ¶ 33, 307 P.3d at 1081 (quoting Winpigler, 8 P.3d at 446). The second part of the test required us to focus on the totality of the circumstances surrounding the search actually conducted. Id. at ¶ 39, 307 P.3d at 1082.

         ¶11 Another well-established exception to the warrant requirement is the plain view doctrine, which provides that police officers "are not required to close their eyes to any evidence that they plainly see while conducting otherwise legitimate searches." People v. Gothard, 185 P.3d 180, 183 (Colo. 2008) (quoting People v. Pitts, 13 P.3d 1218, 1222 (Colo. 2000)). There are three requirements to the plain view doctrine: (1) the intrusion must have been legitimate; (2) the officers must have had a reasonable belief that the evidence seized was incriminating; and (3) the officers must have had a lawful right of access to the evidence. Id. The first prong is met when probable cause and exigent circumstances justify the officers' presence. Id. at 183-84. "The second prong exists when police have probable cause to believe the evidence is incriminating, and the incriminating nature is immediately apparent" to the officers. Id. at 184. "As with other exceptions to the warrant requirement, the exigent circumstances exception may combine with the plain view doctrine to justify a warrantless search and seizure." People v. Kluhsman, 980 P.2d 529, 535 (Colo. 1999).

         B. Application

         1. Exigent Circumstances Exception

         ¶12 Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, we conclude that when the officers entered Pappan's residence, they had an objectively reasonable basis to believe there was an immediate need to protect their lives or safety. We further conclude that the evidence introduced at the hearing established that the manner and scope of the warrantless search was reasonable. Therefore, we hold that the People satisfied Brunsting's two-part test for application of the exigent circumstances exception when officer safety concerns are implicated.

         a. The Officers Had an Objectively Reasonable Basis to Believe There Was an Immediate Need to Protect Their Lives or Safety

         ¶13 In determining that the officers had an objectively reasonable basis to believe there was an immediate need to protect their lives or safety, we consider the totality of the circumstances. However, we view the circumstances as a prudent and trained officer would have at the time of the search.

         ¶14 It was close to night time when the officers responded to Pappan's house pursuant to a 911 call. A man in Pappan's residence had reportedly pointed a laser- sight rifle at the neighbor who lived in the house across the street. The neighbor was sufficiently concerned for his safety that after calling 911 he drove away from his residence in his car and parked nearby. The officers were aware that the 911 report was consistent with the types of crimes that are common in that area.

         ¶15 The first person the officers encountered, a female on the front porch of Pappan's house, immediately avoided them by going inside the house and locking the screen door behind her, despite their commands to stop and their requests to talk to her. Officer De La Fuente had to yank the screen door open and pull her out to get her on the porch. Moments later, Officer De La Fuente saw Pappan running down the stairs from the second floor of the residence and heard that he was yelling. Although he complied with her request to come out to the porch, he subsequently disregarded another officer's commands. As a result, the officers placed him in handcuffs and detained him. The ...


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