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Meyer v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

January 22, 2016

RUSTY K. MEYER, Appellant,

          Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District, Palmer, Vanessa H. White, Judge. Trial Court No. 3PA-11-014 CR.

         Marjorie Mock, under contract with the Public Defender Agency, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

         Terisia K. Chleborad, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

         Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, and Allard, Judge.


Page 614

          ON REHEARING

         MANNHEIMER, Judge.

         The Appellant, Rusty K. Meyer, seeks rehearing of our earlier decision in this case: Meyer v. State, unpublished, 2015 WL 1604860 (Alaska App. 2015).

         Meyer was convicted of felony driving under the influence based on evidence obtained during Meyer's encounter with the police at a fireworks stand on the Parks Highway. Before his trial, Meyer filed a motion to suppress this evidence, arguing that the police had subjected him to an investigatory stop without the necessary reasonable suspicion to justify the stop.

         The superior court held an evidentiary hearing and made findings of fact regarding what exactly happened during Meyer's encounter with the police. Based on its findings of fact, the superior court concluded that Meyer's encounter with the police amounted to an investigatory stop for purposes of the

Page 615

Fourth Amendment. But the superior court denied Meyer's suppression motion because the court concluded that this investigatory stop was supported by reasonable suspicion.

         On appeal, this Court upheld the superior court's decision on a different ground: we concluded that, given the facts found by the superior court, Meyer's encounter with the police did not amount to an investigatory stop -- thus making the issue of reasonable suspicion moot. Meyer, 2015 WL 1604860 at *2-3.

         In his petition for rehearing, Meyer concedes that an appellate court is authorized to affirm a lower court's ruling using a legal analysis that is different from the one the lower court used.[1] That is, Meyer implicitly acknowledges that, in such circumstances, an appellate court need not defer to the lower court's differing legal analysis of the case, but can instead apply its own independent legal analysis.

         But Meyer argues that our decision in his case did not rest on a rejection of the superior court's legal analysis. Rather, Meyer contends, our decision rested on a rejection of a finding of fact made by the superior court.

         More specifically, Meyer argues that the superior court's Fourth Amendment conclusion -- that Meyer was subjected to an investigatory stop -- was a finding of fact that we were required to defer to, and not a conclusion of law that we could independently review.

         To support this argument, Meyer relies on decisions of the Alaska Supreme Court which declare that a court's ruling as to whether a person was seized for Fourth Amendment purposes is a finding of fact -- a finding that is reviewed under the deferential " clearly erroneous" standard of review. See Majaev v. State, 223 P.3d 629, 631 (Alaska 2010); Waring v. State, 670 P.2d 357, 364 n. 15 (Alaska 1983).

         If Meyer is correct on this point, then this Court committed error when we independently reviewed the superior court's conclusion that Meyer's encounter with the police constituted an investigatory stop. For as Meyer points out, an appellate court is not authorized to use its independent judgement when assessing the facts of a case under the " clearly erroneous" standard of review. Instead, an appellate court must defer to the lower court's view of the facts: we must accept the facts as found by the lower court unless, based on the record, we are left " with a definite and firm conviction ... that a mistake has been made" .[2]

         But as we explain in this opinion, even though our supreme court declared in Waring and Majaev that it is a " question of fact" whether a person's encounter with the police constituted a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes, the supreme court did not actually follow this rule in either Waring or Majaev. Instead, the supreme court decided the Waring and Majaev appeals using the principle that appellate courts normally apply to all types of cases: A trial court's findings of historical fact are reviewed deferentially, under the " clearly erroneous" standard; but the proper legal categorization of those facts -- i.e., the assessment of the legal consequences of the trial court's findings of fact -- is a question of law that the appellate court evaluates de novo.

         This is the principle that applies to appellate review of trial court rulings regarding whether a Fourth Amendment seizure took place -- i.e., rulings as to whether particular police conduct constituted an investigatory stop or an arrest. And, indeed, this is the principle that the supreme court applied in Waring and Majaev.

         Accordingly, this Court acted correctly when we independently evaluated whether the facts of Meyer's case constituted an investigatory stop.

Page 616

         A closer look at the Alaska Supreme Court's decisions in Waring and Majaev

         The question that we have been discussing has its origin in footnote 15 of the Waring opinion, 670 P.2d at 364. In this footnote, the supreme court declared that " [w]hether a seizure has occurred is a question of fact."

         But as the Waring court then explained, " the superior court [in Waring's case] did not make a specific finding [on the question of whether] a seizure occurred." Ibid. If the question of whether a seizure occurred were truly a question of fact, then one would expect the supreme court to have remanded Waring's case to the trial court so that the trial judge could make a finding on this factual issue.

         (Alaska Criminal Rule 12(d) requires trial judges to make explicit findings of fact when adjudicating suppression motions. When a trial judge fails to make all the findings necessary to resolve a suppression ...

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