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State v. Voss

July 20, 2004

STATE OF MINNESOTA, RESPONDENT,
v.
DAVID VOSS, APPELLANT.



Murray County District Court. File No. K0-02-74.

Considered and decided by Minge , Presiding Judge, Harten , Judge, and Halbrooks , Judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Administrative searches by firefighters, like searches by law enforcement, are subject to limitations under the United States and Minnesota Constitutions; the state bears the burden to justify warrantless searches by firefighters.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Harten, Judge

Reversed

OPINION

Appellant challenges his convictions of and stayed sentences for two counts of fifth-degree controlled substance offense, arguing that firefighters, who were inside appellant's residence after extinguishing a fire and searching for the cause of the fire and for hotspots, exceeded the scope of their lawful presence by opening a disconnected basement freezer, where they discovered marijuana. Because the state failed to meet its burden to justify the search, and the state has not shown that the convictions were unattributable to the marijuana discovered in the freezer, we reverse.

FACTS

Appellant David Voss began renting a farmhouse from Henry Van Dam in 1987. Although no written lease was signed, appellant and Van Dam agreed that appellant would maintain and pay for any repairs to the property in exchange for occupying the house. By September 2001, appellant and his son had moved out of the house and his daughter lived there with her boyfriend. In late November 2001, appellant's daughter and her boyfriend moved out of the farmhouse.

On 12 January 2002, appellant and his son returned some of appellant's belongings to the house. After they finished, appellant's daughter-in-law arrived and they noticed smoke billowing from the top of the house. Appellant's son called 911 to report the fire.

A deputy sheriff was the first to arrive at the property and, after determining that nobody was inside the house, remained at the end of the driveway to help control traffic. By the time two local volunteer fire departments arrived, very dense smoke had filled the house, and the flames extended from the floor to the ceiling on the main level. Appellant assisted the firefighters by describing to them the house's floor plan before they entered. Once the fire was extinguished, several teams of firefighters searched throughout the house for hotspots and smoldering materials. One team opened an upstairs bedroom closet and discovered several marijuana plants growing inside. Another team of firefighters went into the basement and discovered three marijuana plants and a fluorescent light inside a chest freezer. The firefighters told the deputy sheriff about the marijuana plants, which were photographed and seized.

Appellant was subsequently charged with attempted third-degree controlled substance crime (sale/cultivation of five or more grams of marijuana), fifth-degree controlled substance crime (possession), and fifth-degree controlled substance crime (sale/cultivation). At the omnibus hearing, appellant moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the firefighters' search, arguing that the deputy should have acquired a search warrant before entering the house and seizing the evidence. The district court denied the motion, finding that the deputy sheriff "did not make any search of the house and that the seizures were proper under the circumstances of this case." The jury found appellant guilty of the fifth-degree offenses. He now challenges the district court's denial of his suppression motion.*fn1

ISSUE

Did the district court err in denying appellant's motion to suppress the evidence obtained ...


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