This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).




State of Minnesota,



Christopher Michael Cameron,


Filed April 29, 1997


Toussaint, Chief Judge

Scott County District Court

File No. 96-02743

Hubert H. Humphrey III, Attorney General, 1400 NCL Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for appellant)

Thomas J. Harbinson, Scott County Attorney, Susan K. McNellis, Assistant County Attorney, 206 Scott County Courthouse, 428 South Holmes Street, Shakopee, MN 55379 (for appellant)

John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, University of Minnesota, 95 Law Center, 229 19th Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55455 (for respondent)

David Boyce, First Judicial District Public Defender, 3918 Beau D-Rue Drive, Eagan, MN 55122 (for respondent)

Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge, Toussaint, Chief Judge, and Mulally, Judge.[*]


TOUSSAINT, Chief Judge

Appellant State of Minnesota contends the trial court erred in suppressing marijuana seized from a container in respondent Christopher Michael Cameron's vehicle. Because we determine that the scope of the probable-cause search for alcohol did not include the container, we affirm.


When reviewing a pretrial order suppressing evidence where the facts are not in dispute and the trial court's decision is a question of law, the reviewing court may independently review the facts and determine, as a matter of law, whether the evidence need be suppressed.

State v. Othoudt, 482 N.W.2d 218, 221 (Minn. 1992). In a pretrial appeal, this court will reverse the trial court only if:

The state demonstrates clearly and unequivocally, first, that the trial court erred in its judgment and, second, that unless reversed, the error will have a critical impact on the outcome of the trial.

State v. Kim, 398 N.W.2d 544, 547 (Minn. 1987).

Police Officer Bruce Simon discovered marijuana in Cameron's vehicle while conducting a probable-cause search for alcohol. During the search, Officer Simon observed a 48 ounce container labeled "Our Family Soft Spread" on the floor in front of the passenger seat. When Officer Simon picked up the container, he observed that it appeared lighter than 48 ounces. Nonetheless, based on his past experience observing underage persons conceal small liquor bottles in similar containers he opened the margarine container. Officer Simon found the container had a green, leafy, vegetable substance in it which he believed was marijuana. Testing confirmed the substance was marijuana and Cameron was charged with possession of a controlled substance in violation of Minn. Stat. § 152.025, subd. 2 (1) and 3.

The automobile exception to the warrant requirement mandates that police may search a vehicle without a warrant, including any closed containers within the vehicle, if they have probable cause to believe the search will result in discovery of evidence or contraband. State v. Search, 472 N.W.2d 850, 852 (Minn. 1991). The scope of a warrantless search of an automobile, or a container in an automobile:

is not defined by the nature of the container in which the contraband is hidden, it is defined 'by the object of the search and the places where there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.'

State v. Nace, 404 N.W.2d 357, 361 (Minn. App. 1987).

The trial court found that Officer Simon's search of the automobile was unreasonable and did not "include a 'very light' 48 ounce margarine container, with its lid secured, that exhibits no signs whatsoever of having alcohol inside of it." Moreover, the trial court explained there was no indication that Officer Simon heard or felt alcohol or any alcohol containers in the margarine container when he picked it up.

The state contends the trial court erred in concluding that there was "no conceivable scenario wherein Officer Simon could have reasonably believed that the margarine container held alcohol of any sort." Cf. State v. Schinzing, 342 N.W.2d 105, 110 (Minn. 1983) (hypothesizing that opening an automobile ashtray while conducting a search for alcohol bottles would be outside of the probable-cause basis of a search for alcohol, because those items could not be kept in an automobile's closed ashtray); Cf. State v. Ellanson, 198 N.W.2d 136, 137 (1972) (observing that a vehicle's glove compartment could contain open bottles, therefore searching the glove compartment for alcohol is lawful).

Based on these facts, the distreict court concluded Officer Simon could not have reasonably believed the container held alcohol or alcohol bottles. Once Officer Simon held the margarine container and determined it was lighter than 48 ounces and did not detect the presence of alcohol or bottles containing alcohol the permissible inference to search the container vanished. Therefore, we conclude the trial court did not clearly and unequivocally err in determining that opening the container was outside the scope of the probable cause basis for the search.


[ ]* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.