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Howard v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

June 26, 2009

James S. HOWARD, Appellant,
STATE of Alaska, Appellee.

Page 1045

Sharon Barr, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

W.H. Hawley, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, Anchorage, and Talis J. Colberg, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

Before : COATS, Chief Judge, and MANNHEIMER and BOLGER, Judges.


COATS, Chief Judge.

James S. Howard was convicted of misconduct involving a controlled substance in the fourth degree,[1] driving with a suspended, revoked, or expired registration,[2] and driving without evidence of registration. [3] Howard appealed to this court, arguing that the superior court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence. We reversed the decision of the superior court, concluding that Howard's admission that he had illegal drugs in the car was obtained in violation of his Miranda rights.[4]

Page 1046

We remanded the case to allow the parties to litigate what evidence, if any, should be suppressed because it was tainted by the Miranda violation.[5] On remand, Superior Court Judge Douglas L. Blankenship concluded that the trooper had probable cause to arrest Howard for possession of illegal drugs without relying on Howard's statement, and that the trooper lawfully obtained the methamphetamine in a search incident to Howard's arrest. Howard appeals. We uphold Judge Blankenship's decision.

Judge Blankenship's findings

On remand, Judge Blankenship conducted an evidentiary hearing at which the arresting officer, Alaska State Trooper Andrew Ballesteros, testified. Based upon this testimony and former testimony in the case, Judge Blankenship made the following findings: On July 3, 2004, at about 6:18 p.m., Trooper Ballesteros conducted a valid traffic stop because Howard's car did not have a front license plate. The trooper approached the car on the driver's side and asked Howard for identification. As Howard searched for his driver's license, the trooper saw that Howard was moving his hands " around, [and that] they were going everywhere." Trooper Ballesteros became concerned for his own safety, so he watched Howard's hands closely.

While he was watching Howard's hands, the trooper saw a plastic container on the floorboard, close to Howard's right leg. The container was a food storage container that was clear on the sides and had a blue plastic top. Ballesteros could identify an inhaler among several items in the container. Because the container was in an odd place and because there was a possibility that the container could contain weapons, Trooper Ballesteros asked Howard what was in the container. In response, Howard raised the container up to where the trooper could clearly see most of the contents through the clear plastic sides. Although Howard quickly placed the container back on the floor, Trooper Ballesteros did see a yellow lighter, an inhaler, and two foil packages, along with other objects he could not identify. The foil packages were " roughly in the shape of triangles," approximately two and one-half inches by an inch or two.

Based upon his training, Trooper Ballesteros believed that there was a good possibility that the foil triangles contained illegal drugs. He knew that it was common for cocaine and methamphetamine to be packaged in similar foil packets. Trooper Ballesteros also considered the fact that Howard was unusually nervous and " jumpy." He knew that this behavior might be an indication that Howard was under the influence of drugs.

Trooper Ballesteros asked Howard to raise the container up again. Although Howard did raise the container, his hands " continued to move about" in a way that convinced the trooper that something was wrong. He therefore asked Howard to step out of the car. Trooper Ballesteros secured Howard in handcuffs behind his back and asked Howard what was in the foil. Howard answered that he had methamphetamine. Trooper Ballesteros advised Howard that he was under arrest for possession of methamphetamine. He asked Howard for permission to search his car; Howard replied, " Yeah."

Trooper Ballesteros and two other troopers who had arrived at the scene retrieved the plastic container from the car. It contained the foil packets, one of which had crystalline powder inside, two plastic straws, a lighter, and an inhaler. The troopers also found a small Altoid's tin in the console of Howard's car, which contained a yellow plastic bag with a small amount of white powder in it. They also found other drug paraphernalia in the car, including razor blades, pieces of plastic straws, thirteen small plastic bags, and a butane fuel canister.

The crystalline substance in the yellow bag and in the piece of foil tested positive for methamphetamine; trace amounts of methamphetamine were also found on the straw. Howard moved to suppress this evidence, but the court denied the motion. Howard was then convicted in a bench trial of fourth-degree misconduct involving a controlled

Page 1047

substance,[6] driving with a suspended, revoked, or expired registration,[7] and driving without evidence of registration [8] (for not having a front license plate).

Howard appealed his convictions to this court. We concluded that Howard's admission that he had methamphetamine was obtained in violation of his Miranda rights. We therefore directed the superior court to determine what evidence, ...

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