This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. ß 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
State of Minnesota,
Ashanti Marcus Watson,
Filed November 30, 1999
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 98006847
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 1400 NCL Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101; and
Amy Klobuchar, Hennepin County Attorney, Beverly J. Benson, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney, C-2000 Government Center, 300 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55487 (for respondent)
John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, Lawrence W. Pry, Assistant State Public Defender, 2829 University Avenue Southeast, Suite 600, Minneapolis, MN 55414 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Short, Presiding Judge, Willis, Judge, and Anderson, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellant Ashanti Marcus Watson challenges the district courtís denial of his motion to suppress a baggie of cocaine found in the vehicle in which he was a passenger. The district court found that the seizure of the cocaine was valid under the "plain view" exception to the warrant requirement and, alternatively, that the search was a valid search incident to arrest. Because the seizure of the cocaine was valid under the plain view exception, we affirm.
On the morning of September 12, 1997, Minneapolis police received a dispatch call reporting a domestic assault at the residence of Laqucetris Watson. The call identified the suspect as the victimís husband, appellant Ashanti Watson. According to the dispatch report, Ashanti Watson left the scene with a gun and several baggies of narcotics. Watson was headed to his own residence in a black car. This information was confirmed by investigating officers.
Officer Michael Kjos, who was on his way to work in his own private vehicle, drove to Ashanti Watsonís residence. When he arrived, he saw Watson, whom he recognized from prior contacts, sitting in the passenger seat of a black car. Earl Jones was sitting in the driverís seat of the vehicle. Officer Kjos watched the men in the car from a short distance away. When he saw Watson exit the vehicle, he approached and directed both men to stand at the rear of the vehicle while he called for assistance. Officer Kjos performed a pat-down search of the two men, but did not find a gun or narcotics. Moments later, Officer David Robinson and his partner arrived on the scene. Officer Robinson handcuffed Watson and placed him under arrest for domestic assault.
Officer Robinson testified that, while standing outside of the car, he looked through the vehicleís window into the back seat area. He claims he saw a plastic bag containing a white powder substance, which he believed to be cocaine, near the top of a laundry basket. Officer Robinson entered the vehicle and seized the baggie. Field testing equipment later revealed that the substance was cocaine.
Earl Jones, the owner and driver of the vehicle, testified to a different version of events. He claimed that Officer Robinson took the laundry basket out of the vehicle and began to search through the clothing that was inside. It was only after this search, according to Jones, that the baggie of cocaine was discovered.
The district court denied Watsonís motion to suppress the cocaine, finding: (a) that the seizure was valid under the "plain view" exception to the warrant requirement; and, alternatively, (b) that the search was valid as a search incident to arrest.
D E C I S I O N
Watson argues that the seizure of the cocaine did not fall within the purview of the plain view exception and that the search was not a valid search incident to arrest. Because we hold the seizure was valid under the plain view exception, we do not decide whether it was a proper search incident to arrest.
Generally, the police must have a warrant before they can conduct a search or effect a seizure. State v. Munson, 594 N.W.2d 128, 135 (Minn. 1999). In certain circumstances, the "plain-view" exception allows the police to seize items without a warrant. Arizona v. Hicks, 480 U.S. 321, 326, 107 S.Ct. 1149, 1153 (1987). The police may seize contraband in plain view if "(1) police are legitimately in the position from which they view the object; (2) they have a lawful right of access to the object; and (3) the objectís incriminating nature is immediately apparent." State v. Dickerson, 481 N.W.2d 840, 844-45 (Minn. 1992) (citations omitted). This court will not reverse the district courtís findings on the legality of a search or seizure unless the findings are clearly erroneous or contrary to law. In re Welfare of G.M., 560 N.W.2d 687, 690 (Minn. 1997).
Watson argues that the district court erroneously found that the cocaine was in plain view. He points to Earl Jonesí testimony that Officer Robinson did not find the cocaine until he searched through the laundry basket. Watson also argues that it is simply unbelievable that he would have left the cocaine on the top of the basket. But the district court credited the testimony of Officer Robinson that the baggie was visible from outside the vehicle. Credibility determinations are for the district court to make. See State v. Robinson, 458 N.W.2d 421, 424 (Minn. App. 1990) (refusing to disturb the district courtís credibility finding), review denied (Minn. Sept. 14, 1990); see also Dickerson, 481 N.W.2d at 843 (reviewing court gives great deference to district courtís fact finding). The district courtís credibility determination is strengthened by the fact that Jones, who provided the only testimony contrary to Robinson, is a convicted felon. See Minn. R. Evid. 609(a) (permitting the use of a felony conviction to impeach a witness). Accordingly, the district courtís finding that the cocaine was in plain view was not clearly erroneous.
Officer Robinson was legitimately in a position (outside the vehicle) where he viewed the cocaine. Moreover, the incriminating nature of the item (that it was a controlled substance) was apparent. To satisfy this requirement, the officer need only "have probable cause to believe the item is of an incriminating nature." State v. Lembke, 509 N.W.2d 182, 184 (Minn. App. 1993) (citing Hicks, 480 U.S. at 326, 107 S.Ct. at 1153). Officer Robinson testified that he believed the substance in the baggie was cocaine, based upon his experience and the dispatch report which stated that Watson left the scene of the assault with baggies of narcotics.
Finally, Officer Robinson had a lawful right of access to the baggie. In discussing the lawful access requirement, the United States Supreme Court has noted:
This is simply a corollary of the familiar principle * * * that no amount of probable cause can justify a warrantless search or seizure absent "exigent circumstances." Incontrovertible testimony of the senses that an incriminating object is on premises belonging to a criminal suspect may establish the fullest possible measure of probable cause. But even where the object is contraband, this Court has repeatedly stated and enforced the basic rule that the police may not enter and make a warrantless seizure.
Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 137 n.7, 110 S.Ct. 2301, 2308 n.7 (1990) (quotation omitted). Under the "motor vehicle exception," police may enter and search a motor vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe there is contraband inside. Munson, 594 N.W.2d at 135; see also State v. Willis, 320 N.W.2d 726, 728 (Minn. 1982) (holding the police entry into a vehicle to seize a gun was valid under the motor vehicle exception where the gun was seen in plain view from outside the vehicle). In the present case, the plain view of the cocaine within the vehicle gave Officer Robinson probable cause to enter the car and seize it.