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State v. Pierre

February 3, 1997

STATE OF WASHINGTON, RESPONDENT,
v.
MICHAEL PIERRE, APPELLANT.



Appeal from Superior Court of King County. Docket No: 94-1-00734-0. Date filed: 06/14/94. Judge signing: Hon. Patricia H. Aitken.

Authored by C. Kenneth Grosse. Concurring: William W. Baker, Walter E. Webster.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Grosse

GROSSE, J. -- Michael Pierre appeals his conviction of one count of possession of cocaine with intent to deliver. He claims the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress evidence seized during a warrantless search of his vehicle because he was not an occupant of the vehicle at the time of the arrest and the search was therefore not incident to his arrest. We agree and reverse.

This opinion will not be published. The facts are known to the parties and will be mentioned only insofar as necessary to an understanding of this opinion.

Pierre claims that the warrantless search of the car cannot be sustained as a search incident to arrest because he was not an occupant of the vehicle immediately prior to, or at the time of, his arrest, but rather was approaching the vehicle which had been parked and unoccupied for at least 15 minutes before the arrest. Pierre challenges the court's finding that "Detective Sergeant Bredeson searched the car incident to the arrest." *fn1 He also assigns error to the court's Conclusion that "Detective Sergeant Bredeson['s] subsequent search of the unlocked car was a valid search incident to that arrest, and was not too broad in scope." *fn2

In reviewing findings of fact entered following a motion to suppress, the court will review only those facts to which error has been assigned. *fn3

The reviewing court gives deference to the trial court with regard to credibility issues since the trial court had the opportunity to evaluate the demeanor of the witnesses. *fn4 We review findings of fact entered after a suppression hearing for substantial evidence, which is a sufficient quantity of evidence to persuade a fair-minded, rational person of the truth of the finding. *fn5

The rule regarding warrantless searches of automobiles incident to an arrest, when the location of the defendant and other circumstances raise concerns of officer safety and destruction of evidence, such as where the car's engine is running and the defendant is in or adjacent to the car, is as follows:

During the arrest process, including the time immediately subsequent to the suspect's being arrested, handcuffed, and placed in a patrol car, officers should be allowed to search the passenger compartment of a vehicle for weapons or destructible evidence. However, if the officers encounter a locked container or locked glove compartment, they may not unlock and search either container without obtaining a warrant.

State v. Stroud, 106 Wash. 2d 144, 152, 720 P.2d 436 (1986).

However, concerns of officer safety and destructibility of evidence are not the same when officers approach a parked, immobile, and unoccupied vehicle. In such a situation no bright-line rule permitting a warrantless search, such as that enunciated in Stroud, is necessary. *fn6 "If exigencies in addition to potential mobility exist, they will justify a warrantless search." *fn7 For example, in Patterson, the court upheld the warrantless search of a parked, unoccupied vehicle on the grounds of the freshness of the officers' pursuit. The court stated: "Had the officers delayed the search by applying for a warrant, the suspect could have moved far from the immediate scene. The evidence found by searching the car enabled the officers to arrest the suspect in the neighborhood within 20 minutes of finding the car." *fn8

In the present case, the vehicle at issue was parked, immobile, and unoccupied when the officers approached it. The occupants of the vehicle, including the defendant, had been inside a restaurant for at least 15 minutes prior to the arrest and were arrested while returning to the vehicle. Thus, there was no danger of officer safety or the destruction of evidence present at the time of the arrest which would justify the warrantless search of the automobile under Stroud.

Moreover, the vehicle at issue here was not connected to the crime; whereas, in Patterson, stolen merchandise was hanging out of the car door and other merchandise was visible inside the car through the window.

Rather, here there was no nexus between the criminal activity and the car, or between the car and the ...


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