This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
State of Minnesota,
Filed February 19, 2002
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 00034189
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 525 Park Street, Suite 500, St. Paul, MN 55103; and
Steven M. Tallen, Minnetonka City Attorney, 4640 IDS Center, 80 South Eighth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent)
Peter J. Timmons, 2000 Wells Fargo Plaza, 7900 Xerxes Avenue South, Bloomington, MN 55431 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Harten, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Halbrooks, Judge.
Appellant challenges his conviction of misdemeanor DWI. He alleges that the police officer, who received a dispatch call concerning a reported property-damage accident and later saw a vehicle matching the dispatcher’s description parked in appellant’s open, attached garage, did not have grounds to believe that there may have been an emergency medical situation that justified a warrantless entry into the garage. Therefore, appellant asserts that any evidence obtained from the illegal entry and search should be suppressed. Because we conclude that the trial court properly ruled that the officer’s conduct did not violate the Fourth Amendment, we affirm.
At approximately 2:20 p.m. on September 1, 2000, Deephaven police officer Tom Gregory received a dispatch report of a property-damage accident involving a black Mercedes sport-utility vehicle (SUV). A driver using a cell phone had reported that the SUV that he was following was driving erratically and had struck a mailbox, breaking off the vehicle’s side mirror and damaging the windshield. The caller also provided the vehicle’s license plate number. Responding to the report, Officer Gregory drove around the immediate neighborhood where the accident had occurred. At about 2:34 p.m., he located the vehicle by its license plate and description, parked in an attached residential garage with an open garage door. The garage had an access door to the townhome.
Officer Gregory testified that, based on the report, he believed that the driver of the SUV might need immediate medical attention. He, therefore, entered the garage through the open door and walked around to the driver’s side to see if there was anyone in the vehicle. Seeing no one in the vehicle and no damage to the windshield, the officer walked around to the passenger side. There he saw that the side mirror was missing and wires were protruding from the point of attachment. At that point, appellant Gerald Rowlette entered the garage from the townhome access door and asked the officer why he was there. When told that the officer was investigating a reported accident, appellant expressed surprise and indicated that he did not know how the mirror had been broken. At 2:40 p.m., another officer arrived as backup. By then, appellant was standing at the curb by the squad cars outside of the garage. The officers, who observed indicia of appellant’s intoxication while speaking with him, performed a preliminary breath test and field sobriety tests. As a result of those tests, the officers arrested appellant for driving while under the influence. The result of a voluntary Intoxilyzer test performed at 3:54 p.m. showed appellant’s alcohol concentration to be .21.
Appellant was charged with both misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor DWI offenses. At the Rasmussen hearing, the trial court denied appellant’s motions to suppress all evidence and to dismiss the charges based on the officer’s alleged illegal entry into the garage. After the prosecution agreed to drop the gross-misdemeanor charge, appellant agreed to submit the misdemeanor DWI and alcohol-concentration charges to the court pursuant to State v. Lothenbach, 296 N.W.2d 854 (Minn. 1980). The court convicted him of both charges. This appeal follows.
When reviewing a pretrial order suppressing evidence when the facts are not in dispute and the trial court’s decision is a question of law, this court independently reviews the facts to determine, as a matter of law, whether the evidence should be suppressed. State v. Othoudt, 482 N.W.2d 218, 221 (Minn. 1992) (citation omitted).
The Fourth Amendment protects both an individual’s home and its curtilage from unreasonable searches and seizures. Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170, 180, 104 S. Ct. 1735, 1742 (1984). The curtilage of a home includes the garage. State v. Crea, 305 Minn. 342, 346, 233 N.W.2d 736, 739 (1975); Tracht v. Comm’r of Pub. Safety, 592 N.W.2d 863, 865 (Minn. App. 1999), review denied (Minn. July 28, 1999). But police officers with legitimate business may enter areas of the curtilage impliedly open to the public, where they are free to make observations. Crea, 305 Minn. at 346, 233 N.W.2d at 739; see also Tracht, 592 N.W.2d at 865 (upholding search when police walked through open garage door for purpose of reaching service door to residence, when truck alleged to have been involved in accident was parked in driveway).
The trial court found that the officer’s entry into the open garage to determine if anyone suspected of involvement in the hit-and-run accident was in the vehicle and whether anyone was in need of medical assistance was reasonable and not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The emergency exception to the warrant requirement allows police to enter a home without a warrant “if they reasonably believe that a person within is in need of emergency aid.” Othoudt, 482 N.W.2d at 223 (citing Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 392-93, 98 S. Ct. 2408, 2413-14 (1978)). An objective standard governs whether the officer’s belief was reasonable. Id. In determining whether this standard has been met, the court inquires
whether with the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure or search, would a person of reasonable caution believe that the action taken was appropriate.
Id. (citation omitted).
We agree with the trial court that the officer’s entry into the open garage was reasonable under the circumstances. The officer had just received a report of a hit-and-run accident involving an SUV with a broken mirror and possible broken windshield. The accident had occurred less than ten minutes earlier in the immediate neighborhood. The officer testified that he entered the garage because he did not know if there was anyone still in the vehicle, and if so, whether that person needed immediate medical attention. The officer walked to the driver’s side of the vehicle to determine whether the driver might be hurt. Seeing no one in the vehicle, he then walked to the other side, where he observed the missing side mirror.
Appellant contends that the officer spent an excessive amount of time examining the vehicle before appellant voluntarily re-entered the garage from his home. But the record does not support his argument. The responding officer testified that he spent only “a couple minutes” looking at the vehicle before appellant came into the garage. In addition, a backup officer testified that, by the time he arrived at the house (six minutes after the first officer had arrived), appellant was already standing by the squad car outside the garage.
The trial court did not err in denying appellant’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the search.