BY THE COURT
construing the command for reasonable searches under the
Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the
United States Supreme Court has held that a search of private
property is unreasonable unless it has been authorized by a
valid search warrant or one of the specifically established
and well-delineated exceptions to the warrant requirement.
enforcement officers have discretion in conducting inventory
searches so long as that discretion is exercised according to
standard criteria and on the basis of something other than
suspicion of evidence of criminal activity.
essential predicate to any valid warrantless seizure of
incriminating evidence under the plain-view exception to the
warrant requirement is that a law enforcement officer cannot
have violated the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place
from which the evidence could be plainly viewed. In addition,
the evidence's incriminating character must be
Where a container is involved, complying with the warrant
requirement or one of its well-delineated exceptions is
required because the Fourth Amendment provides protection to
the owner of every container if the container conceals its
contents from plain view.
Under the facts of this case, the State failed to meet its
burden of demonstrating that a specifically established and
well-delineated exception to the warrant requirement
permitted the search for a driver's license in an
automobile driver's purse and wallet.
from Dickinson District Court; Benjamin J. Sexton, judge.
E. Hawkins, assistant county attorney, argued the cause, and
Andrea Purvis, county attorney, and Derek Schmidt, attorney
general, were with him on the brief for appellant.
Whitney T. Kauffeld, assistant public defender, argued the
cause and was on the brief for appellee.
Colleen Evans argues law enforcement officers violated her
rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States
Constitution when they conducted a warrantless search of her
purse and wallet after an ambulance took her from the scene
of an automobile accident. To justify the constitutionality
of the search, the State must establish the law enforcement
officers conducted a search under authority of a warrant or
one of the specifically established and well-delineated
exceptions to the warrant requirement. Here, the State relies
on the plain-view exception and the officer's
administrative caretaking function of locating a driver's
license to complete an accident report. The district court
held the State had not met its burden of establishing the
application of an established exception to the warrant
requirement, and we affirm.
and Procedural History
State charged Evans with two counts: (1) unlawful possession
of methamphetamine and (2) possession of drug paraphernalia
after officers performing a warrantless search of her purse
and wallet found evidence of those crimes. Evans moved to
suppress evidence, and the district court held an evidentiary
hearing on Evans' motion. The State presented testimony
from Dickinson County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Longbine and
Abilene Police Department Sergeant Mark Haaga.
Longbine testified he responded to a call of a car accident
on I-70. At the scene, Longbine observed it appeared the
driver "went off the side of the road, and went up the
incline, and flipped one time, and landed with the door
against" a pole. Longbine approached the car and found
Evans was in pain and distraught. Longbine talked to her, and
learned her first name.
Haaga arrived to assist Deputy Longbine. Shortly after Haaga
arrived, Longbine left the scene to respond to another call.
Haaga spoke with the driver, who said her name was Julia
Evans. She also told him she did not want to have an
ambulance. She informed him she had called her ex-boyfriend.
Haaga knew the ambulance was almost at the scene and knew
emergency personnel would have to extract Evans from the car.
Haaga noticed no signs Evans was impaired, nor did he detect
any smell of alcohol, marijuana, or anything else emanating
from the car.
emergency personnel arrived, Sergeant Haaga directed traffic
while the emergency personnel removed Evans from the car. As
the emergency personnel were placing Evans in the ambulance,
Haaga "asked them to ask her where her driver's
license was, so [he] could obtain that, for the accident
report." They said they would get back to him but did
not. After the ambulance pulled away, Haaga observed a purse
in the car. He also saw a woman's wallet next to-not
in-the purse. It is his practice under these circumstances to
collect anything of possible value from the car for
safekeeping so it is not lost or stolen when, as in this
case, the car will be towed to a "wrecker yard."
entering the car to take custody of the purse and wallet,
Sergeant Haaga looked through Evans' purse. When he did
not find Evans' driver's license, he turned to the
wallet. He opened a zippered compartment on the outside-what
Haaga described as the "backside"-of the wallet. In
the compartment he found "a small plastic baggie with
the white crystal substance in it." He believed the
substance was methamphetamine. He then opened the main part
of the wallet and found Evans' driver's license.
Haaga testified he was not investigating a crime at the time,
he was just looking for the license.
Haaga later took the purse and wallet to the sheriff's
department and gave them to Deputy Longbine. Longbine
explained the reason for taking Evans' purse was to
obtain her driver's license number so the sheriff could
determine "if she's suspended, or not suspended. It
gives us her name. Her photo, also, gives us the information
of knowing that is the person that was in the car." In
addition, the sheriff's office uses the license number to
determine whether the driver has a record or is required to
have an interlock device on the car. Longbine said that at
that time he was only investigating the accident, and it is
necessary to obtain the driver's license to do paperwork
for the accident. Longbine testified to testing the white
crystals; they tested positive for methamphetamine.
explained he could not take the purse to Evans because there
was not enough manpower for him to go to the hospital. But he
no longer had the wallet. He explained:
"I gave it back to her-matter of fact, her boyfriend
kept on calling and calling for it. And she-he-she wanted it.
And I said I'm only going to take it and give it to her.
And then when she got out of the hospital-she was still in
her gown, and she was-it looked like she had her arm propped
up. And that's when I went outside and handed it to
hearing Deputy Longbine's and Sergeant Haaga's
testimony, the district court judge ruled from the bench. The
judge first noted Haaga conducted a search without a warrant.
The judge then noted none of the exceptions to the warrant
requirement applied. The judge acknowledged the
"officer's situation . . . of investigating an
accident, and-and wanting to take the shortcut." The
judge observed that alternatives were available, such as
impounding the automobile or getting a warrant if a search
was justified. But "the opening of the wallet, ...