Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Steven Charles Perkins,
Filed May 5, 1998
Reversed and remanded
File No. K8-97-11347
Douglas L. Johnson, Coon Rapids Assistant City Attorney, 11155 Robinson Drive, Coon Rapids, MN 55433 (for appellant)
Michael F. Cromett, Assistant State Public Defender, E-1314 First National Bank Building, St. Paul, MN 55101; and
Carole Marie Finneran, Anoka County Public Defender, 433 Jackson Street, Anoka, MN 55303 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Willis, Judge, and Mulally, Judge.
*Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. Art. VI, § 10.
The state challenges the district court's order suppressing evidence, arguing that the opening of respondent's car door by a police officer was not a violation of respondent's Fourth Amendment rights. We reverse and remand.
The officer observed respondent Steven Perkins sitting in the front passenger seat not wearing a seat belt. Perkins told the officer his name and age, and, when asked for identification, he responded that he had none. After the officer asked the driver to step out of the car, the driver identified the passenger as her 21-year-old brother, Steven Perkins. The officer then approached the front, passenger's side door and opened it so that he could hear Perkins more clearly.
The officer noticed that Perkins was holding a heavy object in his pants pocket, causing the pocket to sag between the seat and the door. Following this observation, the officer closed the car door and returned to his patrol car to run a check on Perkins. After learning that Perkins had an outstanding felony warrant for possessing a controlled substance, the officer returned to the stopped vehicle, reopened the passenger door, and noticed that Perkins was now wearing his seat belt and that the bulge in his right pants pocket was gone.
After arresting Perkins for the outstanding warrant, the officer searched the vicinity where Perkins had been sitting. He found a small firearm, containing a live cartridge, under the front passenger seat and found a loaded clip containing five additional cartridges.
Perkins was charged with possession of a pistol without a permit to carry in violation of Minn. Stat. § 624.714, subd. 1(a) (1996). On October 27, 1997, Perkins's motion to suppress the evidence was granted. The district court concluded that the officer's conduct was unreasonable and that it violated Perkins's constitutional rights.
A district court's pretrial order may be overturned if the state demonstrates that the order suppressing the evidence was clearly and unequivocally erroneous. State v. Joon Kyu Kim, 398 N.W.2d 544, 547 (Minn. 1987). The state must also show that unless reversed, the error will critically impact the trial's outcome. State v. Webber, 262 N.W.2d 157, 159 (Minn. 1977). Upon review of a suppression issue, where the facts are not in dispute and the decision is a question of law, this court may independently review the facts and decide whether the evidence should be suppressed. State v. Othoudt, 482 N.W.2d 218, 221 (Minn. 1992).
The state argues that pursuant to State v. Ferrise, 269 N.W.2d 888 (Minn. 1978), the officer's opening of the passenger's side door did not violate Perkins's Fourth Amendment rights. We agree.
Fourth Amendment analysis requires us to balance the reasonableness of the government intrusion against a citizen's right to be free from arbitrary interference of law officials. Ferrise, 269 N.W.2d at 890 n.1 (citing Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 109, 98 S. Ct. 330, 332 (1977)). The occupant's privacy interest must be weighed against the officer's interest in reducing "`the likelihood that the officer will be the victim of an assault.'" Id. at 890 (quoting Mimms, 434 U.S. at 110, 98 S. Ct. at 333; see also Mimms, 434 U.S. at 111, 98 S. Ct. at 333 (ordering driver out of car is de minimus intrusion because it is outweighed by strong justification of preventing assaults against officers).
Generally, an officer may open the passenger door of a legally stopped vehicle. Ferrise, 269 N.W.2d at 891. In Ferrise, the Minnesota Supreme Court stated that in operation there was
little practical difference between ordering a driver [or passenger] to open [the] door and get out of [the] car * * * and opening the door for the driver [or passenger] and telling [the individual] to get out, on the other.
Id. at 890 (emphasis added). The decision in Ferrise was based on Mimms, 434 U.S. at 111, 98 S. Ct. at 333, wherein the United States Supreme Court upheld the police practice of ordering drivers from vehicles already stopped for minor traffic violations. Ferrise, 269 N.W.2d at 890. This practice has also been upheld as applied to passengers. See Maryland v. Wilson, 117 S. Ct. 882, 886 (1997) (holding officer making traffic stop may order passenger out of automobile pending completion of stop); see also State v. Gilchrist, 299 N.W.2d 913, 916 (Minn. 1981) (stating that, pursuant to stop, officer may "require occupants of the automobile to get out").
The district court clearly erred in suppressing the weapon in this case. Here, as in Ferrise, the officer may have tried to get the occupant's attention some other way, but the officer's chosen method of opening the door was not unreasonable. See Ferrise, 269 N.W.2d at 891 (noting that although officer "could have tapped on the window," opening passenger door was not unreasonable). The officer legally stopped the vehicle in which Perkins was a passenger. When the officer failed to obtain identification from the driver, he approached the passenger's side door. In order to speak with the passenger for the purpose of obtaining further identification information, he opened the passenger's side door. In this instance, the officer was justified in opening the door since the additional intrusion into the passenger's interest was de minimus. See id (holding that intrusion into passenger's privacy was minimal when balanced against strong public interest of protecting police officers).
Based on the facts of the present case, we conclude that the district court clearly erred in suppressing the weapon because there was only a minimal intrusion into Perkins's privacy and the officer's actions were reasonable under the circumstances.
Reversed and remanded.
[ 1] The state raises an alternative argument, which we need not determine, regarding whether the opening of the door was legally permissible since the officer's seizure of the weapon was inevitable. We need not reach the question of whether or not the discovery was inevitable because our prior determination that the officer's actions did not violate respondent's Fourth Amendment rights is dispositive of the case.