STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
State of Minnesota,
Filed September 15, 1998
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 97006896
Hubert H. Humphrey III, Attorney General, 1400 NCL Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101; and
Michael Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Paul R. Scoggin, Linda K. Jenny, Assistant County Attorneys, C-2000 Government Center, Minneapolis, MN 55487 (for respondent)
William E. McGee, Chief Fourth District Public Defender, Mary Moriarty, Warren R. Sagstuen, Assistant Public Defenders, 317 Second Avenue South, #200, Minneapolis, MN 55401-2700 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge, Harten, Judge, and Forsberg, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N
Appellant Lontirril Thomas was found guilty of receiving a stolen firearm in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.53, subd. 1 and § 609.52, subd. 3(1) (1996), after the case was submitted to the district court on stipulated facts. Because we conclude the police officer's search of the vehicle for guns was justified, we affirm.
While investigating an altercation and an alleged violation of a restraining order, a police officer was informed by Deion Sims, the alleged violator of the restraining order, that he was being chased by people in an Oldsmobile and that there were guns in the car. Ambulance personnel on the scene reported to the officer that Sims had told them he was being chased by people in a car who had guns and that they had seen a tan Oldsmobile, license number 568NUY fleeing the scene. Later, two other witnesses reported that they heard Sims say that he was going to get a gun and, although they saw him go to the trunk of the car, they never actually saw a gun.
Over four hours later, another officer received a dispatch call stating that a suspect vehicle was fleeing, plate number 586NUY, a tan Oldsmobile which possibly contained guns inside. The officer followed the car, which had a cracked taillight and had failed to signal a turn. When the car was stopped, the driver, Lontirril Thomas, got out. Police put him in the back of a squad car. After Thomas told police his driver's license was in the car, an officer entered the car to retrieve it, where he saw a semi-automatic handgun under the front seat. The weapon was seized and later found to have been stolen.
[W]hen reviewing a pre-trial 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) (citations omitted).
Police had acquired information at the scene of the altercation involving Sims that indicated the car Thomas was driving contained guns and had been used to pursue, stalk, intimidate, or even assault Sims. The automobile exception to the warrant requirement allows police to search an automobile without a warrant if there is probable cause to believe the vehicle contains articles the officers are entitled to seize. Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 48, 90 S. Ct. 1975, 1979 (1970). Probable cause may be based on information provided by a victim of a crime or a witness to a crime, as in Chambers, where witnesses gave police a description of a vehicle that appeared to have been used in a gas station robbery. Id. at 47, 90 S. Ct. at 1977, 1979.
The veracity of a victim or witness of criminal activity is generally presumed. 2 Wayne R. LaFave, Search & Seizure § 3.4(a), at 204-05 (3d ed. 1996). It is true that, in this case, Deion Sims was suspected of having committed a crime himself. Police may have a duty to consider whether a witness has a motive to give false information. See id. at 212-13. But here, witnesses confirmed there was an altercation, and two people told police Sims had been punched in the mouth. Police were not required to discredit what Sims said, nor to absolve all other participants in the incident of any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.
It is a criminal offense to possess a handgun in a motor vehicle without having a permit for the gun. Minn. Stat. § 624.714, subd. 1 (1996). The officers could also have reasonably suspected that the occupants of the Oldsmobile had illegally brandished a firearm, had stalked or pursued Sims, or had committed some type of assault against him. See Minn. Stat. §§ 609.66, subd. 1(1),(2) (defining dangerous weapon offenses), 609.749, subd. 2(2) (defining one form of harassment) (1996). We conclude that police were justified in pursuing the Oldsmobile and that they had probable cause to believe that the car contained weapons that may have been used in a criminal offense or were otherwise subject to seizure. Therefore, under the automobile exception, the warrantless search of the vehicle was permissible. Accordingly, we need not address the other theories advanced by the state in support of the search or appellant's challenge to the arrest.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. Art. VI, § 10.