State v. Pearson
251 P.3d 152 (Mont. 2011)
In State v. Pearson, the Montana Supreme Court held that methamphetamine discovered during an unlawful search of a defendant’s fanny pack was admissible under the inevitable discovery doctrine. The Court determined that the officers initiated lawful investigatory proceedings and intended to arrest the defendant prior to the unlawful search. Therefore, a routine inventory search at the police station would have inevitably revealed the methamphetamine.
This case arose after two Billings Police Officers, Officer LaMantia (“LaMantia”) and Officer Kristjanson (“Kristjanson”), stopped Thomas Pearson (“Pearson”) for driving with a broken tail light. Rather than stopping on the road, Pearson pulled into a parking lot. The officers then observed Pearson making “furtive movements” as LaMantia approached his vehicle. Pearson appeared to reach across the passenger seat, causing Kristjanson to fear that he was trying to grab a weapon. Kristjanson also observed a “meth watch” sticker on Pearson’s window. Kristjanson testified that methamphetamine users commonly display these stickers on their cars.
When he reached Pearson’s vehicle, LaMantia saw Pearson holding “a large wad of cash.” LaMantia soon learned that Pearson did not have insurance and had allowed his registration to expire. A subsequent license search revealed that Pearson was on probation and had used drugs in the past.
The officers conducted a protective pat down of Pearson and removed and searched his fanny pack. They did not initially discover any weapons or contraband. Shortly thereafter, Kristjanson observed a can of pepper spray in plain view near the driver’s seat of Pearson’s vehicle. Because Kristjanson was aware that probationers cannot lawfully possess pepper spray, he detained Pearson and put him in the patrol car, but he did not arrest Pearson at this time. Kristjanson then made an attempt to contact Officer Pinnick (“Pinnick”), Pearson’s probation officer.
Following his detainment, Pearson gave the officers written consent to search his vehicle, where they found drug paraphernalia. Officer Vickery (“Vickery”) arrived at the scene and conducted a second search of Pearson’s fanny pack. This time, the officers discovered that the fanny pack contained a bindle of methamphetamine. After the officers seized the methamphetamine, they were able to contact Pinnick, who authorized a probation violation hold on Pearson.
The district court denied Pearson’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained by the officers during the searches of Pearson’s fanny pack and car. The court determined that “officer safety concerns justified the first search of Pearson’s fanny pack,” and “Pearson’s written consent justified the officers’ search of his car.” The district court found Vickery’s second search of Pearson’s fanny pack to be unlawful, but declined to suppress the methamphetamine evidence because it would have inevitably been discovered during a routine inventory search or the probationary search authorized by Pinnick.
On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s decision to admit the methamphetamine evidence. The Court determined that even though Vickery did not have a warrant or warrant exception justifying the second search of Pearson’s fanny pack, the methamphetamine would have inevitably been discovered during a routine inventory search at the police station.
Normally, the exclusionary rule prohibits evidence obtained through unlawful searches from being introduced at trial. The exclusionary rule does not apply, however, if the evidence “would have been discovered despite the unlawful government intrusion.” The Court explained that the doctrine of inevitable discovery generally applies “when investigatory procedures already were in progress and the lawful investigation eventually would have revealed the evidence.” But, “it must appear ‘as certainly as night follows day’ that the evidence would have been discovered without reference to the violation of the defendant’s rights.”
Relying on its reasoning in State v. Hilgendorf, the Court concluded that the methamphetamine in Pearson’s case would have inevitably been discovered during a routine inventory search. The Court explained that Kristjanson handcuffed Pearson, put him in the patrol car, and attempted to contact Pinnick before Vickery searched his fanny pack. Kristjanson also testified that he intended to arrest Pearson for the pepper spray violation alone. This probation violation justified Pearson’s immediate arrest independent of the officers’ discovery of the methamphetamine. Additionally, Pinnick “would have authorized Pearson’s arrest based solely on the pepper spray violation or drug paraphernalia.” Following arrest, officers at the detention center would have inevitably discovered the methamphetamine contained in Pearson’s fanny pack during a routine inventory search.
The Court also addressed Justice Nelson’s dissenting argument that the inevitable discovery doctrine could not excuse the unlawful search because Pinnick did not authorize Pearson’s detention until after the search took place. The Court countered that Kristjanson was in the process of arresting Pearson before Vickery discovered the methamphetamine. Thus, Kristjanson had initiated lawful investigatory proceedings that would have inevitably led to the discovery of the methamphetamine prior to the unlawful search.
Justice Nelson dissented from the Court’s decision to admit the unlawfully obtained methamphetamine evidence. He argued that Kristjanson did not actually place Pearson under arrest or read him his Miranda rights until after the methamphetamine had been discovered. Justice Nelson also focused on Kristjanson’s testimony that he would never have transported Pearson to the detention facility absent Pinnick’s approval. Because the unlawful search occurred before Pinnick authorized Kristjanson to transport Pearson, it was not “inevitable” that the methamphetamine would have been discovered.
Montana practitioners should be aware that the Court may apply the inevitable discovery doctrine when a routine inventory search would have revealed evidence even if officers fail to arrest a defendant prior to conducting an unlawful search. So long as officers intend to arrest a defendant and initiate investigatory proceedings based upon an independent offense, evidence obtained from a subsequent unlawful search may be admissible if it would have been inevitably discovered at the police station.