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State v. Miller

Supreme Court of Alaska

May 8, 2009

STATE of Alaska, Petitioner,
v.
Michael MILLER, Respondent.

Page 542

Tamara E. de Lucia, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Talis J. Colberg, Attorney General, Juneau, for Petitioner.

Douglas O. Moody, Assistant Public Defender and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for Respondent.

Before : FABE, Chief Justice, MATTHEWS, EASTAUGH, CARPENETI, and WINFREE, Justices.

OPINION

CARPENETI, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

A police officer, responding to a 911 call reporting a domestic dispute in the parking lot of a bar late at night, stopped a car leaving the lot that matched the description provided by the 911 caller. The driver, subsequently charged with failure to take a breath test, moved to suppress evidence discovered as a result of the investigative stop. The district court denied the motion to suppress and the driver was convicted. The court of appeals reversed. Because the district court properly found that the officer had an objective basis to believe that a crime had occurred or that one was imminent, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals and reinstate the driver's conviction.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

A. Facts

On July 13, 2005, at approximately 12:30 a.m., a woman called emergency 911 to report that a man and a woman were fighting in the parking lot of Henry's Bar in Juneau. The caller clarified her statement that the couple was " fighting" by saying " not like physical punching, but like yelling, I mean fighting and pointing, and like waving of arms." She indicated that the man and woman were a couple or possibly siblings. The caller stated that the man was approximately a foot and a half taller than the woman, and further described each individual. The caller also indicated that the couple was standing in front of a white Subaru WRX with its doors open.

After receiving the 911 call the police dispatcher contacted Officer Keith Mickelson who was on patrol in the immediate area. The dispatcher reported to Officer Mickelson that there was a " verbal 10-16" -police code for a domestic dispute-occurring in the parking lot of Henry's Bar, and that the complaint involved a man and a woman arguing beside a white Subaru.

Officer Mickelson approached the parking lot in his vehicle within moments of receiving the call and observed the white Subaru parked in front of Henry's; he noted that people were getting into the Subaru. As he entered the parking lot the Subaru was already driving across the lot toward him. The two vehicles passed within eight to ten feet of each other. Officer Mickelson could see the driver, and could tell that there were two other individuals in the vehicle, but could not determine whether any occupants of the car had suffered any injuries or whether there was other evidence of violence.

The officer brought his vehicle behind the Subaru and turned his police lights on when the Subaru was stopped at the stop line at the exit from the parking lot. Officer Mickelson approached the vehicle and spoke with the driver, Michael Miller, through the Subaru's open window. Officer Mickelson asked Miller " what was going on" with the argument at Henry's Bar. When Officer Mickelson

Page 543

looked at the two female passengers they shook their heads in a gesture that the officer interpreted as an indication that everything was fine. Officer Mickelson, having noticed Miller's bloodshot, watery eyes, and having detected the smell of alcohol, turned his attention back to Miller. Miller was ultimately arrested and charged with driving under the influence, refusal to submit to a chemical test, and two counts of reckless endangerment.

B. Proceedings

Miller filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained as a result of Officer Mickelson's investigative stop, arguing that the officer lacked the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify the stop. The district court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion in September 2005. Officer Mickelson was the only witness to testify at the hearing. Recordings of the 911 call and the communication between the police dispatcher and Officer Mickelson were also played at the hearing.

At the conclusion of the hearing, District Court Judge Keith B. Levy made oral findings that Officer Mickelson had reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify the investigative stop and, accordingly, denied Miller's motion to suppress. Judge Levy expanded on his findings and conclusions in a written decision. He found that " [a]lthough Officer Mickelson did not observe the dispute personally, the information he had was sufficient to establish a substantial possibility that a domestic violence assault was occurring, had occurred, or was about to occur." Judge Levy also found that " the potential harm of domestic violence, when weighed against the intrusiveness of the investigatory stop in this case, is sufficient to justify the stop."

After Judge Levy issued his order denying the motion to suppress, the parties entered into a Cooksey [1] plea under which they recognized that the outcome of the motion to suppress was dispositive of the case and agreed to allow Miller to retain the right to appeal from the district court's denial of his motion to suppress. Miller pled guilty to refusal to submit to a breath test and the other charges were dropped.

Miller appealed the district court's denial of his motion to suppress. The court of appeals concluded that the stop was illegal because Officer Mickelson " had no objective basis to believe that the reported argument had led, or would lead, to a crime," and that the district court therefore erred in denying Miller's motion to suppress.[2] Accordingly, the court of appeals reversed Miller's conviction.[3] We granted the state's petition for hearing, and now reverse the decision of the court of appeals.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review a denial of a motion to suppress evidence in the light most favorable to upholding the trial court's ruling.[4] The trial court's findings of fact will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous.[5] We independently determine whether the trial court's factual findings support its legal conclusions.[6]

IV. DISCUSSION

The Court of Appeals Erred in Holding that the District Court Should not Have Denied Miller's Motion To Suppress and in Reversing ...


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