Hennepin County District Court File No. 27-CR-12-8718
Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Thomas A. Weist, Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent)
Cathryn Middlebrook, Interim Chief Appellate Public Defender, Charles F. Clippert, Assistant Public Defender, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Hooten, Presiding Judge; Halbrooks, Judge; and Stauber, Judge.
Appellant Kevin Clifton, Sr., was convicted of being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm after police found a handgun during a search of his vehicle. Before trial, Clifton moved to suppress the gun, arguing that officers impermissibly exceeded the scope of his traffic stop and that the vehicle search was unreasonable. The district court denied the motion, and we affirm because the police officers' actions were reasonable under the circumstances.
Minneapolis police officer Jomar Villamor was conducting surveillance for a narcotics investigation on March 20, 2012, when he and other officers noticed the driver of a white Chevrolet Tahoe behaving suspiciously. After the suspect of the investigation was pulled over, the Tahoe's driver—later identified as Clifton—passed the traffic stop, circled the block, waited several seconds at a stop sign facing the traffic stop, and slowly passed the traffic stop again. He then turned into a parking lot and positioned his vehicle facing toward the traffic stop. Clifton was on his phone and appeared to have a lot of interest in the traffic stop. This caused Officer Villamor to become concerned. Clifton had exited a building with the suspect and others moments before the suspect's traffic stop. Officer Villamor thought that Clifton might compromise the narcotics investigation, alert others that the suspect had been arrested, and that Clifton may have had bad intentions toward the squad car transporting the suspect.
When the suspect was placed in the back of a marked squad car, Clifton exited the parking lot and began to follow the squad car. Officer Villamor, who was driving an unmarked vehicle, saw that an upcoming traffic light was about to turn red, so he positioned himself between the squad car and Clifton's Tahoe. The squad car was able to turn before the light turned red, but Officer Villamor stopped. Instead of also stopping, Clifton abruptly turned without signaling and drove through a nearby parking lot. His engine revved and his tires squealed as he exited the parking lot and drove away at a high rate of speed toward the squad car.
Convinced that Clifton intended to catch up with the squad car, Officer Villamor instructed another officer to stop the Tahoe. Once Clifton was pulled over, Officer Villamor and a group of fellow officers approached the Tahoe with their guns drawn. They ordered Clifton to exit his vehicle, but Clifton indicated that he could not open his door from the inside. Officer Villamor opened it for him and asked Clifton to exit, which he did. Officer Villamor smelled marijuana emanating from the inside of the Tahoe. When asked about the odor, Clifton said that he had just finished smoking marijuana and had marijuana in the vehicle. Clifton was then handcuffed and driven to the police unit's office in Officer Villamor's vehicle.
Soon after, Officer Thomas Fahey and Torren, his canine partner, arrived to search Clifton's Tahoe. The vehicle was moved before the search because Clifton did not stop on the side of the road and there was heavy rush-hour traffic. Officer Fahey noticed a strong odor of marijuana when he opened the driver's door. At his direction, Torren sniffed through the vehicle and alerted him to several locations. Officer Fahey observed marijuana flakes and seeds on the floor below the driver's seat and in the cup holders. When he removed a set of rear cup holders connected to the vehicle's center console, he found a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun inside.
On March 22, 2012, Clifton was charged with being a prohibited person in possession of a firearm, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 624.713, subd. 1(2) (2010). Before trial, Clifton moved to suppress all evidence found during the search of his vehicle, arguing that the stop and search were illegal. The district court denied ...