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State v. Doelz

Supreme Court of Kansas

January 11, 2019

State of Kansas, Appellee,
Robert William Doelz, Appellant.


         1. A police officer's warrantless search of an automobile is per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and results in illegally obtained evidence unless the State can prove that the search fits within one of the recognized exceptions to the constitutional warrant requirement. Those recognized exceptions to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement are: consent; search incident to a lawful arrest; stop and frisk; probable cause plus exigent circumstances; the emergency doctrine; inventory searches; plain view or feel; and administrative searches of closely regulated businesses.

         2. Under the plain-view doctrine, police may seize a plainly viewed object without a warrant if: (1) the police officer is lawfully at the location and position from which the object was plainly viewed; (2) the incriminating character of the object is immediately apparent from the police officer's plain-view observation; and (3) the police officer has a lawful right of access to the place and position at which the object may be seized.

         3. If a police officer lacks probable cause to believe that an object in plain view is contraband without conducting some further search of the object, i.e., if the object's incriminating character is not immediately apparent solely from the initial observation, the plain-view doctrine cannot justify the seizure of the object without a warrant.

         4. If a container conceals its contents from plain view, the plain-view exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution cannot be applicable, standing alone, to permit the warrantless search of that container.

         5. A vehicle's mobility is considered an exigent circumstance for purposes of the probable-cause-with-exigent-circumstances exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, creating a subclass known as the automobile exception. The automobile exception provides that a warrant is not required to search a vehicle as long as probable cause exists to believe the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime and the vehicle is readily mobile.

         6. The probable cause analysis under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution reviews the totality of the circumstances to determine whether it is fairly probable that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence.

          Review of the judgment of the Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion filed July 1, 2016.

          Appeal from Leavenworth District Court; Gunnar A. Sundby, Judge.

          Caroline M. Zuschek, of Kansas Appellate Defender Office, argued the cause, and Peter Maharry, of the same office, was on the briefs for appellant.

          Todd G. Thompson, county attorney, argued the cause, and Kathryn Devlin, assistant county attorney, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, were on the brief for appellee.


          Johnson, J.

         A law enforcement officer stopped the vehicle Robert Doelz was driving to investigate whether it had any connection to a recent bank robbery. After seizing a digital scale from the backseat, the officer searched the vehicle, uncovering a large amount of methamphetamine in the vehicle's gas cap area. The district court denied a motion to suppress the fruits of the vehicle search, and an initial jury trial ended with a hung jury. The retrial jury convicted Doelz of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute; the district court denied Doelz' motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence; and the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's denial of the suppression motion, the district court's denial of the new trial motion, and the jury's conviction. We granted Doelz' petition for review which claims inter alia that the Court of Appeals erred in affirming the district court's denial of the motion to suppress because the officer's general search of Doelz' vehicle was an unconstitutional warrantless search. We agree, reversing and remanding to the district court.

         Factual and Procedural Summary

         On May 31, 2013, a credit union in Leavenworth, Kansas, was robbed. According to eyewitnesses, two black males committed the robbery, and they fled in a dark green Chevrolet Blazer driven by a white male. The witnesses said the getaway vehicle had standard Missouri license plates with the final three characters being "GAY." But standard Missouri license plates use both letters and numbers.

         The next morning, Leavenworth Police Officer Brandon Mance saw a dark green Chevrolet Blazer with standard Missouri license plates ending in "G4Y." The vehicle was parked at a residence Mance knew to be "involved with drug activity." As he drove past the parked Blazer, Mance noted that there were three white males inside the vehicle and a black male leaning against the outside of the Blazer, talking to the backseat passenger.

         Mance waited until the vehicle left the residence, followed it, and subsequently initiated a traffic stop. Doelz was driving; Floyd Eaton was the front-seat passenger; and David Schmidt was seated in the backseat. None of the occupants was black. Mance asked if they had any knowledge about the robbery that occurred the night before, and they responded that they had read about it in the newspaper. Doelz told Mance that the Blazer belonged to his girlfriend's aunt. Mance recognized Eaton and Schmidt from prior encounters; Mance associated Eaton with a residence "notorious for the use of narcotics, primarily methamphetamines," and Eaton had previously admitted to using methamphetamine.

         Mance ran all three occupants' names through dispatch and discovered that Schmidt had two outstanding arrest warrants with the City of Leavenworth. In the process of arresting Schmidt, Mance saw an object on the Blazer's backseat, 4 by 4 inches, black plastic, with a lid and a clasp, that he believed contained a digital scale. Without obtaining permission to enter the vehicle or to remove the object, Mance grabbed it, opened it, and confirmed that it was a digital scale.

         Mance confronted Doelz with the scale, and Doelz denied that it belonged to him. Mance then requested permission to search the vehicle, but Doelz initially resisted the request. Mance told Doelz that, based on the evidence he had already found, the officer was legally authorized to search the vehicle even without permission. At that point, Doelz responded, "If you have to, go ahead." The ensuing thorough search of the vehicle uncovered drugs, drug paraphernalia, and cash, including 28.52 grams of methamphetamine wedged in the vehicle's gas cap area.

         The State charged Doelz with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and, after a preliminary hearing and arraignment, the matter was set for a jury trial. The Friday before trial, Doelz filed a motion to suppress all of the evidence recovered in the vehicle. He first argued that the investigative detention should have terminated when Mance confirmed that the vehicle occupants were white, given that the credit union robbers were described as two black males. In addition, he asserted that Mance had unlawfully seized the digital scale without a warrant, and the ensuing vehicle search-based upon the scale and without a knowing consent-was an unlawful warrantless search.

         At trial the next Monday, Doelz' counsel objected to officer Mance's testimony regarding the seized evidence and, in a sidebar, stated he wished to preserve his motion to suppress for appeal. The judge overruled the objection. The district court then took up the motion to suppress at the end of the day, following voir dire, opening statements, and the State's case-in-chief. Because the district court did not hold an evidentiary hearing, it is unclear whether the judge relied exclusively on testimony at ...

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