Appeal from Superior Court of Snohomish County. Docket No: 94-1-01681-9. Date filed: 03/15/95. Judge signing: Hon. Larry E. McKeeman.
Authored by Walter E. Webster. Concurring: Ronald E. Cox, Ann L. Ellington.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Webster
WEBSTER, J. -- The State appeals the trial court's suppression of an all- terrain vehicle (ATV) seized by police. The issue is whether the police had probable cause to arrest Christopher Buck for possession of stolen property prior to entering his van, recording the ATV's vehicle identification number, and seizing the ATV. In other words, were the arresting officers aware of facts and circumstances, based on reasonably trustworthy information, sufficient to cause a reasonable officer to believe that Buck possessed stolen property?
The police began investigating Buck after receiving an anonymous tip. They uncovered Buck's convictions for possessing stolen property and burglary, and saw an ATV in the back of his van. When they approached Buck in a public place to ask about the ATV, he fled. After police caught him, the Honda dealer determined that the ATV in Buck's van was (1) identical in color, model, and make to one believed to be stolen, and (2) that the 80-%90% of the VIN numbers which the dealer could see comported with that stolen vehicle. These facts and circumstances constituted probable cause to arrest Buck. Hence, the police could search the van incident to his arrest. The subsequent seizure of the ATV after verifying all its VIN numbers -- which were in plain view -- did not violate Buck's constitutional rights. Consequently, we reverse the trial court's order suppressing the ATV.
An anonymous tipster called the Everett Police Department to report that Christopher Buck had a stolen Honda ATV in the back of his Chevrolet van. The caller reported that the theft had occurred the previous week from the Everett Honda dealer, and that Buck, a white male living out at Bruskrud (in Everett), was trying to sell the vehicle for $1,500. Police detectives learned from the dealer that someone stole some ATVs four days earlier. Because it lacked a complete inventory list, however, the dealer could only immediately provide the serial number for one stolen red ATV.
The detectives also learned that Buck had convictions for burglary and possession of stolen property, and that the Department of Corrections, which was currently supervising him, listed his address as 1304 Bruskrud Road, Apt. 3204, Everett.
The detectives drove to Buck's apartment, observing a white van near apartment 3204. They saw a red Honda ATV inside the van. They waited, trying to think of a ruse to lure Buck to his van. While they waited, two men came out and drove away in the van. When Buck ran a stop sign, the detectives radioed for a marked patrol car to effect a traffic stop. Buck, however, pulled into a convenience store and got out of the van. Detective Peterson approached and asked to speak with him. Buck ran but Detective Maurer caught him after a foot race, bringing him back handcuffed and placing him in a patrol car. The ATV in the van was not the same ATV for which the dealer had earlier sent police a serial number. Therefore, the dealer asked to look at the ATV; a flashlight was used through the window to light the ATV in the van. [The dealer] Mr. Liabold could see where the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) was, and could see most letters and numbers on the VIN plate. Mr. Liabold estimated that he could see 80-90% of the letters and the numbers on the VIN plate. At that time, the ATV in the Chevy van had not been determined to be stolen.
Mr. Liabold returned to his dealership and determined that the ATV in the van was identical in color, model and make to an ATV which was believed to be stolen. That those numbers comported with the vehicle ownership records for an ATV which was owned by his business and that had been stolen a few days prior to December 12, 1994. [Undisputed findings 12 and 13]
Because the VIN number could not be fully read through the van's window, a police officer opened the van's door or window, stuck his head inside, and read the entire VIN number. The Honda dealer confirmed that the ATV had been stolen, and the police informed Buck that he was under arrest for possession of stolen property.
The state charged Buck with one count of possessing stolen property exceeding $1,500 in value. *fn1 Buck moved to suppress the police seizure of the ATV. He contended that the police lacked reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop *fn2 and lacked probable cause for a warrantless arrest, and therefore, the police illegally searched the van by entering it to record the ATV's VIN numbers. The trial court suppressed the ATV, finding that the dealer couldn't confirm that it was stolen without someone having entered the van. Because the officer entered the van without a warrant, the court held that the entry violated Buck's rights under the Fourth Amendment and under Washington's Constitution, Article 1, Section 7. The state appeals.
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