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State v. Ellis

Court of Appeals of Kansas

November 15, 2019

State of Kansas, Appellee,
v.
Shelbie Ellis, Appellant.

         SYLLABUS

         1. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Section 15 of the Kansas Constitution Bill of Rights provides the same protection from unlawful government searches and seizures as the Fourth Amendment.

         2. Whenever an officer interacts with a person in a public place, the rights protected by the Fourth Amendment are tested. The legal principles applied to safeguard those rights vary depending on the type of interaction that takes place. Kansas courts have recognized four such interactions: (1) voluntary encounters; (2) investigatory detentions; (3) welfare checks or public-safety stops; and (4) arrests.

         3. An officer's authority to conduct welfare checks or public-safety stops is not based on a suspicion of criminal activity, but rather a need to check on a person's health or confirm the safety of a situation.

         4. This court uses a three-part test to define the contours of a valid welfare check: First, an officer has the right to stop or investigate when there are objective, specific, and articulable facts to suspect that a person needs help or is in peril. Second, if the person needs help, the officer may take the appropriate steps to render assistance. And third, when the officer believes that the person is no longer in need of assistance, any further actions constitute a seizure.

         5. The exclusionary rule is based on deterrence. To justify the exclusion of unlawfully seized evidence, law enforcement's conduct must be sufficiently deliberate so exclusion can meaningfully deter it and sufficiently culpable so the deterrence is worth the price paid by the justice system in excluding the evidence.

         6. There is no bright-line rule defining when the attenuation doctrine applies to admit evidence that would normally be suppressed. Instead, courts consider various factors, including the temporal proximity between the unlawful conduct and the discovery of the evidence in question; the presence of intervening circumstances (such as the discovery of a warrant); and the purposes and flagrancy of the official misconduct.

         7. Although the existence of an outstanding warrant is certainly a factor weighing against suppression of evidence under the attenuation doctrine, that factor is not controlling in every case. Instead, the discovery of the warrant must be considered in the context of the other factors in the attenuation analysis.

         8. The third factor in the attenuation analysis-the purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct-is perhaps the most critical because it focuses on the primary purpose of the exclusionary rule: deterring police misconduct. To assess the purpose of the misconduct, Kansas courts look at factors such as an officer's regular practices and routines, an officer's reason for initiating the encounter, the clarity of the law forbidding the illegal conduct, and the objective appearance of consent.

          Appeal from Lyon District Court; W. Lee Fowler, judge. Opinion filed November 15, 2019.

          Rick Kittel, of Kansas Appellate Defender Office, for appellant.

          Laura L. Miser, assistant county attorney, Marc Goodman, county attorney, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, for appellee.

          Before Powell, P.J., Hill and Warner, JJ.

          Warner, J.

         This case originates from a welfare check conducted by Emporia police officers at a local convenience store. The officers were called to check on Shelbie Ellis after she had been in the women's restroom for an extended duration. After the police talked to Ellis and determined she did not need assistance, an officer asked for her driver's license and called in a records check for warrants-even though he had no suspicion of criminal activity. The officers subsequently discovered Ellis had an outstanding warrant in Rice County. When they arrested her, the officers found methamphetamine and a pipe in her purse.

         Ellis was convicted of possession of methamphetamine and possession of paraphernalia after the district court denied her motion to suppress the seized evidence. She challenges the denial of that motion on appeal, arguing the records check (as well as the officer's retaining her license and asking her several investigatory questions) violated her right under the United States and Kansas Constitutions to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. And she asserts that the evidence seized in this case must be excluded in order to deter such unlawful conduct and safeguard the constitutional rights at stake. We agree and therefore reverse Ellis' convictions and remand to the district court with directions to suppress the evidence in question.

         Factual Background

         The facts in this case are not disputed. On January 20, 2018, employees at an Emporia convenience store called the local police department because a female customer had been in the bathroom for 45 minutes and was found in a stall on her hands ...


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