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Cardenas v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

November 9, 2018

JESUS ALBERTO CARDENAS, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court, No. 3AN-14-7883 CR, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Michael R. Spaan, Judge.

          Jane B. Martinez, Law Office of Jane B. Martinez, LLC, under contact with the Office of Public Advocacy, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Timothy W. Terrell, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, Allard, Judge, and Suddock, Superior Court Judge. [*]

          OPINION

          ALLARD JUDGE.

         Jesus Alberto Cardenas was the driver of a car that was stopped for reckless driving. During the traffic stop, the officer asked Cardenas whether he had any guns in his vehicle. Cardenas replied in the affirmative, and moved his body and hands towards the back seat, where a black fabric rifle case was sitting. The rifle case was fully zipped up and lying on the back seat behind the passenger seat, outside Cardenas's immediate reach.

         The officer ordered Cardenas to keep both of his hands on the steering wheel. Cardenas complied with this request, and he remained polite and cooperative throughout the traffic stop. The officer decided to secure the rifle case while he ran Cardenas's registration and identification through the system. After telling Cardenas what he planned to do, the officer took the black soft-sided rifle case from the back seat and carried it to his patrol car.

         After getting into his patrol car, the officer opened the rifle case and conducted a thorough search of its contents, opening the smaller compartment of the rifle case first. In this smaller compartment, the officer found an Airsoft pellet gun, a wad of cash, a box of plastic baggies, and several plastic bags with a white powdery substance that was later determined to be cocaine. The officer then opened the larger part of the rifle case and found an unloaded assault rifle and a magazine of ammunition.

         After discovering the drugs and weapons in the rifle case, the officer radioed for backup. After the backup arrived, the officers arrested Cardenas. A subsequent search of Cardenas's vehicle pursuant to a search warrant revealed additional drugs - methamphetamine and cocaine - in the car.

         Cardenas later moved to suppress all of this evidence arguing that the seizure and search of his rifle case was unlawful. The superior court denied Cardenas's suppression motion, concluding that both the seizure and the search of the rifle case were justified under the "officer safety exception to the warrant requirement."

         Following the denial of his motion to suppress, Cardenas waived his right to a jury trial and agreed to a bench trial on stipulated facts. At trial, the judge acquitted Cardenas of third-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance (possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver), but convicted him of the lesser-included offense of fourth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance (possession of methamphetamine).[1] The judge also convicted Cardenas of second-degree weapons misconduct (for possessing a gun during the commission of a drug offense)[2] and third-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance (possession of cocaine with intent to deliver).[3]

         Cardenas now appeals, arguing that the superior court erred when it denied his motion to suppress. For the reasons explained here, we agree with Cardenas that the search of his rifle case was unlawful, and we therefore reverse his convictions.

         Why we conclude that the officer's search of the rifle case was unlawful

         Whether a search is lawful is a mixed question of fact and law.[4] On appeal, we review the trial court's factual findings for clear error, but we independently review whether those facts provided a justification for the challenged search.[5]

         Here, the facts are largely undisputed. The parties agree that the traffic stop was lawful and that the stop was not yet complete when the search of the rifle case occurred. The parties also agree that, with the exception of the initial body movement towards the rifle case that ...


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