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People v. Dyer

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Second Division

October 24, 2019

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Leah Sue Dyer, Defendant-Appellant.

          Larimer County District Court No. 14CR1120 Honorable Gregory M. Lammons, Judge

          Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Frank R. Lawson, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee

          Matthew Fredrickson, Alternate Defense Counsel, Lakewood, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant

          OPINION

          PAWAR JUDGE

         ¶ 1 Department of Human Services (DHS) caseworkers entered the home of defendant, Leah Sue Dyer, without a warrant. We hold, as an issue of first impression in Colorado, that DHS caseworkers are subject to the Fourth Amendment. We further hold that the caseworkers' warrantless entry in this case was illegal, and therefore the trial court was required to suppress all evidence obtained as a direct result. Because the trial court failed to suppress this evidence, we reverse Dyer's conviction of first degree child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury and remand for a new trial.

         I. Background

         ¶ 2 Dyer's mother called the DHS and alleged that Dyer was neglecting her seven-year-old daughter, S.D., who suffered from a seizure disorder. DHS caseworkers tried to contact Dyer and her daughter at their home but were unsuccessful. The caseworkers then sought and received an order to investigate under section 19-3-308(3)(b), C.R.S. 2019. They did not obtain a search warrant under section 19-1-112(1), C.R.S. 2019.

         ¶ 3 Over the next several days, the caseworkers, accompanied by police officers, repeatedly tried to contact Dyer and her daughter at their home, again without success. On the third day, police officers went to Dyer's home without the caseworkers. They knocked on the door and Dyer answered. The officers informed Dyer of the order to investigate. Though the order did not authorize their entry without Dyer's consent, they told her that they needed to come inside to check on S.D. When her initial objections did not cause law enforcement to leave, Dyer eventually stepped aside and the officers entered the home.

         ¶ 4 Once inside, the officers inspected the home, spoke to both Dyer and her husband, and contacted the caseworkers to let them know that they had gained entry to the home. The officers also observed S.D. experience what appeared to be a seizure and requested an ambulance.

         ¶ 5 After the apparent seizure ended, the caseworkers and paramedics arrived at and entered the home. The caseworkers inspected the home and talked to Dyer and her husband while the paramedics tended to S.D. Without Dyer's or her husband's permission, the paramedics loaded S.D. into an ambulance and took her to the hospital. Dyer requested but was not permitted to ride in the ambulance with her daughter, so she and her husband drove themselves. The caseworkers and police officers also drove to the hospital.

         ¶ 6 At the hospital, S.D. was taken to the emergency department, and Dyer was again denied access to her. Before she was allowed to see her daughter, [1] a police officer asked Dyer if she would participate in an interview. Dyer agreed to the interview, and it was conducted by a police officer and a caseworker in a makeshift private room at the hospital. Months later, Dyer gave another statement to police about many of the same topics covered in the hospital interview.

         ¶ 7 The prosecution charged Dyer and her husband with child abuse and, over Dyer's objection, jointly tried them. The prosecution alleged that Dyer and her husband had engaged in a pattern of conduct that allowed S.D.'s condition to deteriorate to a point where she was severely underweight, had stopped talking and feeding herself, and was unable to go to the bathroom by herself.

          ¶ 8 Before trial, Dyer moved to suppress much of the evidence obtained by police, caseworkers, and paramedics on the day they came to her home and took S.D. to the hospital. Dyer argued that the officers, caseworkers, and paramedics had entered her home illegally. She sought to suppress all evidence obtained as a direct result of that illegal entry. Alternatively, she argued that all of her statements to officers, caseworkers, and doctors that day should be suppressed because they were unwarned custodial statements obtained in violation of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), and were also involuntary.

         ¶ 9 The trial court ruled that the officers' initial entry into Dyer's home was illegal and therefore suppressed the officers' observations from inside the home. The court next found, however, that the caseworkers' and paramedics' entries were legal and admitted their observations from inside the home. The court also admitted Dyer's interview with the officer and caseworker at the hospital, as well as her later police interview, holding that these statements were noncustodial and voluntary.

          ¶ 10 The jury found Dyer guilty of child abuse. The trial court entered a judgment of conviction and sentenced her to fifteen years in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

         ¶ 11 Dyer appeals. She argues that the trial court erred by (1) failing to suppress the caseworkers' and paramedics' observations from inside her home, and her interview at the hospital; (2) denying her motion to sever her case from her husband's; (3) failing to give several jury instructions; and (4) admitting other evidence.

         ¶ 12 We agree with Dyer's first contention that the trial court erred by failing to suppress the caseworkers' and paramedics' observations from inside her home and the statement she gave at the hospital to the authorities. We also conclude that this error requires reversal. We therefore address her additional alleged errors only to the extent that they are likely to recur on retrial. II. Officers' and Caseworkers' Illegal Entries Require Reversal

          ¶ 13 Dyer argues that the trial court erred by failing to suppress the caseworkers' and paramedics' observations from inside her home[2] and the statements she made at the hospital. We agree.

         ¶ 14 Reviewing a trial court's suppression ruling presents a mixed question of fact and law. See People v. Hyde, 2017 CO 24, ¶ 9. We defer to the trial court's factual findings if they are supported by the record and review the court's legal conclusions de novo. Id.

         A. Governing Law

         ¶ 15 The Fourth Amendment provides that individuals shall be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const. amend. IV. A warrantless search of a person's home is presumptively unreasonable and therefore illegal. See People v. Fuerst, 2013 CO 28, ¶ 11. The prosecution can overcome this presumption only by establishing that the search falls within a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. Id.

         ¶ 16 Although the Fourth Amendment outlaws unreasonable searches and seizures, nothing in the text of the Fourth Amendment requires suppression of illegally obtained evidence. Instead, the exclusionary rule, a judicially created evidentiary rule, gives effect to the Fourth Amendment by requiring suppression of any evidence obtained as a direct result of an illegal search or seizure. See People v. Kazmierski, 25 P.3d 1207, 1213 (Colo. 2001); People v. Rodriguez, 945 P.2d 1351, 1363 (Colo. 1997). Whether evidence was obtained as a direct result of an illegal search or seizure depends on whether the evidence was obtained by exploiting the illegality or instead by "means sufficiently distinguishable to be purged of the primary taint" of the illegality. Rodriguez, 945 P.2d at 1363-64 (quoting Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 488 (1963)).

         ¶ 17 If a trial court erroneously admits evidence in violation of the Fourth Amendment and the exclusionary rule, we must reverse unless the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. See People v. Morehead, 2015 COA 131, ¶ 34, aff'd in part and rev'd in part on other grounds, 2019 CO 48. This standard compels the prosecution to prove that the error does not require reversal. Id. at ¶ 35.

         B. The Caseworkers' Entry into Dyer's House Was Illegal

         ¶ 18 Neither party disputes that the officers' entry was illegal because it was warrantless and without consent. The caseworkers' entry was also warrantless and without consent. Despite this fact, the trial court ruled that the caseworkers' entry was legal because they were not acting as agents of the police. This ruling was error.

         ¶ 19 Whether the caseworkers were acting as agents of the police is irrelevant for Fourth Amendment purposes. Even if they were not acting as agents of the police, the caseworkers were governmental officials and ...


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