This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).






State of Minnesota,





Darrin Joseph Nelson,



Filed February 5, 2002

Reversed and remanded; motion granted
Klaphake, Judge


Washington County District Court

File No. K3011170


Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 525 Park Avenue, Suite 500, St. Paul, MN  55103; and


Doug Johnson, Washington County Attorney, John Fristik, Assistant County Attorney, Washington County Government Center, 14949-62nd Street North, P.O. Box 6, Stillwater, MN  55082-0006 (for appellant)


Allan H. Caplan, Thomas A. Rothstein, Allan H. Caplan & Assoc. P.A., 525 Lumber Exchange Building, 10 S. Fifth Street, Minneapolis, MN  55402 (for respondent)


            Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge, Schumacher, Judge, and Klaphake, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N


The state challenges a pretrial order suppressing drugs that police found during a search of respondent Darrin Joseph Nelson’s Ford Bronco.  Because the search was a proper search incident to Nelson’s arrest, we reverse the district court’s suppression order and remand for further proceedings.  We also grant Nelson’s motion to award him appellate attorney fees of $2,300 and costs of $267.50. 


            Under the United States and Minnesota constitutions, the state may not conduct unreasonable searches and seizures.  U.S. Const. amend. IV; Minn. Const. art. I, § 10.  “In general, searches conducted without a search warrant are per se unreasonable.”  State v. Ture, 632 N.W.2d 621, 627 (Minn. 2001) (quotation omitted).  Warrantless searches must be “based on particular exigencies of a situation and must be ‘jealously and carefully drawn’ and ‘the burden is on those seeking the exemption to show the need for it.’”  State v. Robb, 605 N.W.2d 96, 100 (Minn. 2000) (quoting Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 455, 91 S. Ct. 2022, 2032 (1971)); see Ture, 632 N.W.2d at 627 (state has burden of “establishing an exception to the warrant requirement”).  “‘When reviewing the legality of a search and seizure, an appellate court will not reverse the trial court’s findings unless clearly erroneous or contrary to law.’”  State v. Munson, 594 N.W.2d 128, 135 (Minn. 1999) (quoting In re G.M., 560 N.W.2d 687, 690 (Minn. 1997)).

            The state claims that the search, which led to discovery of drugs in the cargo area of Nelson’s vehicle, was a legal search incident to a lawful arrest.  See New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 460, 101 S. Ct. 2860, 2864 (1981) (police may search passenger compartment of vehicle if its occupant has been lawfully arrested); Robb, 605 N.W.2d at 100.[1]  Courts created this warrant exception to ensure officer safety and to prevent tampering with or destruction of evidence.  Robb, 605 N.W.2d at 100.  Formerly, the law limited vehicle searches to the area within the occupant’s immediate control, but because of difficulties in applying this test and to deter “the need for a case-by-case determination of the arrestee’s control of the car,” the Supreme Court enunciated a “bright line” rule in Belton that allows search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle contemporaneous with the occupant’s arrest.  See State v. White, 489 N.W.2d 792, 795-96 (Minn. 1992) (incidental search can be conducted after arrestee placed in squad car). 

            The district court based its suppression ruling, at least in part, on the finding that Officer Scott Freemyer “stated he arrested [Nelson] after the vehicle was searched[.]” This finding, however, is contrary to Freemyer’s testimony at the omnibus hearing, in which he testified that he immediately arrested Nelson upon stopping his vehicle because Nelson was driving after suspension of his driver’s license.  Thus, to the extent that the district court’s suppression order is based on the finding that Nelson’s vehicle was searched before he was arrested, it is in error.  Moreover, a search incident to arrest may precede the arrest as long as probable cause to arrest exists and the formal arrest quickly follows.  State v. Bauman, 586 N.W.2d 416, 420 (Minn. App. 1998), review denied (Minn. Jan. 27, 1999).

            We must also determine whether the drugs found in the cargo area of Nelson’s vehicle were within the scope of a search incident to arrest.  Belton allows the search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle but prohibits the search of a vehicle’s trunk.  Belton, 453 U.S. at 461 n.4, 101 S. Ct. at 2864 n.4.  The search of Nelson’s Ford Bronco included the rear cargo area as well as the passenger area in front of the cargo area.

            Federal courts have broadly interpreted the phrase “passenger compartment” to include any interior area of a vehicle that is within a passenger’s reach.  See, e.g., United States v. Thompson, 906 F.2d 1292, 1298 (8th Cir. 1990) (“passenger compartment is interpreted broadly by most courts and generally includes whatever area is within a passenger’s reach”); see also 3 Wayne R. LaFave, Search and Seizure: A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment § 7.1(c), at 451 (2d. ed. 1987) (defining passenger compartment to include “all space reachable without exiting the vehicle, without regard to the likelihood in the particular case that such a reaching was possible”) (emphasis omitted).  Federal courts have also applied this definition to uphold searches of the rear areas of vehicles.  See United States. v. Olguin-Rivera, 168 F.3d 1203, 1205 (10th Cir. 1999) (rear cargo area of Isuzu Rodeo sports utility vehicle); United States v. Pino, 855 F.2d 357, 364 (6th Cir. 1988) (rear section of mid-sized station wagon); United States. v. Russell, 670 F.2d 323, 327 (D.C. Cir. 1982) (rear of hatchback). 

            Although Minnesota courts have not specifically defined the area encompassing the “passenger compartment,” we see no reason to apply a more narrow definition than has been applied consistently by federal courts.  Thus, we conclude that the district court erred in suppressing the evidence found in the rear cargo area of Nelson’s Ford Bronco because the evidence was properly discovered within the passenger compartment during a search incident to Nelson’s lawful arrest.  Because of our decision on this issue, we decline to address the alternative issue of whether the warrantless search was legal under the “automobile exception,” which allows police to search a vehicle if they have probable cause to believe that it contains contraband or illegal merchandise.

            Finally, we award Nelson attorney fees of $2,300 and costs of $267.50, both of which were incurred in defending this appeal.

            Reversed and remanded; motion granted.



[1] Nelson does not appear to challenge the legality of his arrest in this appeal.  The arresting officer, Scott Freemyer, stated that he arrested Nelson for driving after suspension of his driver’s license, although Freemyer normally only issues a citation for such offenses unless a particular offense involves a failure to appear in court or a failure to pay a fine.  At the time of the arrest, Officer Freemyer also had an unconfirmed report that Hennepin County had issued an arrest warrant for Nelson.  Officer Freemyer testified that he later confirmed the existence of the Hennepin County warrant.