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People v. Cline

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

May 6, 2019

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellant
v.
Justin Ray Cline. Defendant-Appellee

          Interlocutory Appeal from the District Court Moffat County District Court Case No. 18CR270 Honorable Michael A. O'Hara III, Judge.

          Attorneys for Plaintiff-Appellant: Brett D. Barkey, District Attorney, Fourteenth Judicial District Brittany Schneider, Deputy District Attorney Craig, Colorado.

          Attorneys for Defendant-Appellee: Megan A. Ring, Public Defender Abigail Kurtz-Phelan, Senior Deputy Public Defender Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

          OPINION

          SAMOUR JUSTICE.

         ¶1 In this interlocutory appeal, we address whether the trial court erred in suppressing a statement made by the defendant, Justin Cline, following a search of his residence by his parole officer and a member of the Craig Police Department. The search yielded a zippered pouch containing a glass pipe and a small piece of straw with white powdery residue that tested presumptively positive for methamphetamine. The trial court found that when Corporal Grant Laehr confronted Cline with the zippered pouch and questioned him, Cline was "effectively under arrest" and "not free to leave." In a written order, the trial court reiterated that once Cline was confronted with the zippered pouch, "a reasonable person in [his] position would not have believed he was free to leave." The trial court ruled that any subsequent questions should have been preceded by an advisement pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Since no such advisement was provided, the trial court suppressed a statement made by Cline.

         ¶2 We now reverse. We hold that the trial court applied the wrong legal standard. We further hold that, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in Cline's position would not have considered himself deprived of his freedom of action to a degree associated with a formal arrest. We recognize that confronting Cline with the zippered pouch is a factor that weighs in favor of a finding of custody for purposes of Miranda. But we conclude that, when viewed in conjunction with the other circumstances present, it is insufficient to warrant a determination that Cline was in custody and that Corporal Laehr was required to read him his Miranda rights. Because the trial court applied the wrong legal standard and treated as dispositive the fact that Corporal Laehr confronted Cline with the zippered pouch, we reverse its suppression order and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Facts and Procedural Background

         ¶3 Cline was placed on parole in an unrelated case in February 2017. As a condition of his parole, he agreed to allow his parole officer to search his residence at any time. At approximately 11 a.m. on December 10, 2018, Cline's parole officer, Kevin Koopmann, went to Cline's residence to conduct a home visit and search.[1] At Koopmann's request, two members of the Craig Police Department, Corporal Laehr and Officer Josh Lyons, met him at the fourplex where Cline's residence was located to assist with the search. After knocking on the door and contacting Cline, Koopmann explained the purpose of the visit and asked Cline to step outside; he used a professional, but firm, tone. Cline complied, at which point Koopmann patted him down for weapons and found none. Pursuant to Koopmann's instructions, Cline remained outside with Officer Lyons while Koopmann and Corporal Laehr completed the search, which lasted approximately ninety minutes.

         ¶4 During the search, Officer Lyons and Cline engaged in "normal bantered conversation" outside the residence. The tone of the discussions was friendly throughout. Officer Lyons did not tell Cline he could not leave, and Cline and three other individuals located on the premises were able to move around in the parking area in front of the residence. At one point, Cline asked Officer Lyons if he could move to the sidewalk and stand in the sun because he was cold, and Officer Lyons did not prevent him from doing so. Officer Lyons, Cline, and the three other individuals then all walked over to the sidewalk. In light of the cold temperatures, Corporal Laehr retrieved a coat from inside the residence for Cline. At another point, Cline asked if he could go speak to an individual by the name of Kelly Nielsen, who was working on a truck parked on the side of the residence. Officer Lyons did not prohibit him from doing so, but asked if Nielsen could come to the area where Cline was instead.

         ¶5 Koopmann's search focused on the room Cline identified as his bedroom. There, he found a zippered pouch containing a glass pipe and a small piece of straw with white powdery residue. Corporal Laehr performed a field test on the residue, which revealed that it was presumptively positive for methamphetamine. Given the preliminary indication of methamphetamine, he decided to question Cline about the zippered pouch and its contents in the parking area in front of Cline's residence. It appears that neither Koopmann nor Officer Lyons was present during the interrogation, although both remained on the premises. Cline was not handcuffed or otherwise physically restrained, and Corporal Laehr used a conversational tone and did not draw his weapon or use any other show of force. Further, Cline did not appear upset; instead, he seemed to be calm and to understand the questions asked and the context of the conversation. And, as far as Corporal Laehr could tell, Cline was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

         ¶6 Corporal Laehr asked Cline three questions. First, he asked about the zippered pouch, and Cline denied it was his. Second, he asked about access to Cline's bedroom, and Cline said that other people had access to the room, that a lot of people had been staying with him recently, and that someone else must have put the zippered pouch in the room; Cline reiterated that the zippered pouch was not his. Third, Corporal Laehr asked the question that gave rise to the statement suppressed by the trial court: When had Cline last used methamphetamine? Cline responded that it was two to three weeks earlier. At that point, Corporal Laehr informed Cline that he was under arrest for possession of a Schedule II controlled substance and placed him in handcuffs. Other than inquiring whether Cline had anything dangerous in his pockets, Corporal Laehr did not ask any other questions. Cline was not advised of his Miranda rights by anyone.

         ¶7 The prosecution subsequently charged Cline with drug-related offenses. Cline filed pretrial motions to suppress. As relevant here, he sought to exclude evidence of all his statements, arguing that they were obtained in violation of Miranda. Following an evidentiary hearing during which Koopmann, Corporal Laehr, and Officer Lyons testified, the trial court orally granted Cline's request in part and denied it in part. The trial court first found that Corporal Laehr's confrontation of Cline with the zippered pouch did not violate Miranda for two reasons: (1) Cline was "not under arrest" and "no reasonable person would have believed that they were under arrest" at that time; and (2) such confrontation did not constitute an interrogation for purposes of Miranda. However, the trial court then ruled as follows:

Corporal Laehr then went on to ask Mr. Cline a question, knowing that Mr. Cline had been confronted with what appeared to be illegal . . . substances or illegal items. And asked him when is the last time you used . . . methamphetamine or words to that effect. That question was designed to elicit an incriminating response and in fact did elicit an incriminating response. [Cline] responded that he last used methamphetamine two-three weeks prior. The Court finds that that question was asked after Mr. Cline was effectively under arrest and certainly not free to leave. . . . So the Court is going to suppress the statement about using methamphetamine two-three weeks ago.

         ¶8 It appears from the record that the trial court was under the misimpression that Corporal Laehr only asked Cline one question-regarding the last time Cline had used methamphetamine. Defense counsel attempted to alert the trial court to this issue, noting that the court seemed to "believe[] that [Corporal] Laehr did not ask a question about the item[] . . . found in [Cline's] room." She informed the court that Corporal Laehr in fact testified that he had questioned Cline about the zippered pouch found in the bedroom and that Cline had denied it was his and had then explained that there were other people with access to the bedroom. The trial court responded that it was "not sure what . . . question" counsel was referring to, "but regardless," it had already concluded that Cline was not under arrest until "after he was confronted" with the zippered pouch. This response suggests that the trial court also misremembered that the two earlier questions were asked after Cline was confronted with the zippered pouch.

         ¶9 In a written order issued six days later, the trial court articulated its ruling again. It indicated that "once [Corporal] Laehr confronted [Cline] with the zippered pouch, a reasonable person in [Cline's] position would not have believed he was free to leave" and would have believed he "was, in fact, under arrest, whether the magic words were spoken at that time or not." The trial court thus concluded that the question by Corporal Laehr about the last time Cline had used methamphetamine constituted a "custodial interrogation" and "should have been asked only after a Miranda advisement." Because no Miranda advisement was provided, the trial court suppressed Cline's response. It did not suppress any of Cline's earlier statements.[2]

         ¶10 The prosecution then brought this interlocutory appeal.[3]

         II. Analysis

         ¶11 The prosecution argues that the trial court erred in finding that Cline was in custody for Miranda purposes when he made the suppressed statement. We agree.

         ¶12 We hold that the trial court applied the wrong legal standard. We further hold that, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in Cline's position would not have considered himself deprived of his freedom of action to a degree associated with a formal arrest. We acknowledge that Corporal Laehr confronted Cline with the zippered pouch and its contents, a factor that weighs in favor of a finding of custody for purposes of Miranda. However, when viewed in conjunction with the other circumstances present, this fact is insufficient to warrant a determination that Cline was in custody for Miranda purposes. Therefore, a Miranda advisement was not required.

         A. Standard of Review

         ¶13 It is now axiomatic that review of a trial court's order regarding a defendant's motion to suppress involves "a mixed question of law and fact." People v. Threlkel, 2019 CO 18, ¶ 15, __P.3d__(quoting People v. Gothard, 185 P.3d 180, 183 (Colo. 2008)). We defer to the trial court's factual findings and do not disturb them so long as "they are supported by competent evidence in the record." Id. (quoting People v. Castaneda, 249 P.3d 1119, 1122 (Colo. 2011)). But we review de novo "the trial court's legal conclusions." Id. (quoting People v. Pitts, 13 P.3d 1218, 1222 (Colo. 2000)).

         ¶14 Here, given the trial court's apparent misperception and misrecollection of some of the evidence presented at the hearing, we defer to some, but not all, of its factual findings.

         B. Relevant Legal Principles

         ¶15 The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, in pertinent part, "No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." U.S. Const. amend. V. More than a half century ago, the United States Supreme Court concluded that the privilege against self-incrimination protected by the Fifth Amendment "applies in the context of a custodial police interrogation," an inherently coercive environment. Verigan v. People, 2018 CO 53, ¶ 19, 420 P.3d 247, 251 (citing Miranda, 384 U.S. at 460-61). In recognition of the pressures present during police interrogations, which tend to undermine a defendant's will to resist and may compel him to speak when he would not otherwise do so, see id., the Miranda Court held that "the prosecution may not use statements . . . stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination," Miranda, 384 U.S. at 444. These "procedural safeguards" long ago became known in common parlance as Miranda warnings: "Prior to any questioning, the [defendant] must be warned that he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed." Id. The prosecution is not allowed to introduce in its case-in-chief any statements made by the defendant during a custodial interrogation unless it first establishes that he was warned about these rights and that he then voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently waived them. People v. Sampson, 2017 CO 100, ¶ 17, 404 P.3d 273, 276.

         ¶16 Although due process prohibits the use of any involuntary statements-i.e., statements coerced by law enforcement-Miranda's prophylactic warnings apply only when the defendant has been subjected to both custody and interrogation. People v. Figueroa-Ortega, 2012 CO 51, ¶ 7, 283 P.3d 691, 692-93. Because there is no dispute that Cline was interrogated, we are only concerned with the custody prong in this case. We limit our discussion accordingly.

         ¶17 A person is in custody for purposes of Miranda if he "has been formally arrested or if, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in [his] position would have felt that [his] freedom of action had been curtailed to a degree associated with formal arrest." People v. Garcia, 2017 CO 106, ΒΆ 20, 409 P.3d 312, 317. It is undisputed that when Cline was questioned he had not been formally arrested. Thus, we must look to "the totality of the circumstances" and ask whether, at the time of Corporal Laehr's interrogation, a reasonable person in Cline's position would have considered himself deprived of his freedom of ...


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