from the Superior Court, No. 3AN-14-7883 CR, Third Judicial
District, Anchorage, Michael R. Spaan, Judge.
B. Martinez, Law Office of Jane B. Martinez, LLC, under
contact with the Office of Public Advocacy, Anchorage, for
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. [*]
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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). The judge also convicted Cardenas of
second-degree weapons misconduct (for possessing a gun during
the commission of a drug offense) and third-degree misconduct
involving a controlled substance (possession of cocaine with
intent to deliver).
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.
we conclude that the officer's search of the rifle case
a search is lawful is a mixed question of fact and
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
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 ...