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State v. Sexter

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

October 14, 2019

State of Minnesota, Appellant,
v.
Jesse Alan Sexter, Respondent.

          Steele County District Court File No. 74-CR-18-944

          Keith Ellison, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Daniel McIntosh, Steele County Attorney, Christy M. Hormann, Assistant County Attorney, Owatonna, Minnesota (for appellant)

          Paul W. Rogosheske, Ryan J. Grove, Rogosheske, Rogosheske, & Atkins, PLLC, South St. Paul, Minnesota (for respondent)

          Considered and decided by Ross, Presiding Judge; Johnson, Judge; and Reilly, Judge.

         SYLLABUS

         A law-enforcement officer may seize an item pursuant to a search warrant if the item is described in the search warrant, if there is a strong relationship between the seized item and the things described in the search warrant, or if the seized item clearly and definitely relates to the suspected criminal conduct that gave rise to the issuance of the search warrant.

          OPINION

          JOHNSON, JUDGE

         Jesse Alan Sexter is charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct and second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon. He filed a motion to suppress evidence that was found during a search that was conducted pursuant to a search warrant. The district court granted the motion in part by suppressing a blue-and-white striped towel on the theory that its seizure was not justified by the search warrant, which authorized law-enforcement officers to seize a "white dish towel-like cloth." The state challenges that part of the district court's ruling in this pre-trial appeal. We conclude that the district court erred by suppressing the blue-and-white striped towel because there is a strong relationship between the blue-and-white striped towel and the things described in the search warrant and because the blue-and-white striped towel clearly and definitely relates to the suspected criminal conduct that gave rise to the issuance of the search warrant. Therefore, we reverse and remand.

         FACTS

         In February 2018, Sexter lived on a farm in Steele County with his wife and three children, including a then-17-year-old girl. On February 27, 2018, the girl reported to her school's social worker that Sexter had sexually and physically abused her. Specifically, the girl stated that, two days earlier, Sexter had forced her to engage in oral sex.

         The matter was reported to law enforcement. Sergeant Okins of the Steele County Sheriff's Office and a social worker interviewed the girl later that day. The girl described various incidents occurring over a period of several years. With respect to the incident occurring two days earlier, the girl told Sergeant Okins that, when she and Sexter were in the cab of a truck for the purpose of plowing the driveway, he kissed her and forced her to manually stimulate his penis. The girl said that she and Sexter then went to a red shed on the farm, that he told her to get on her knees, and that he inserted his penis into her mouth. The girl said that Sexter then asked her to grab "a white cloth, similar to a dish rag" so that he could use it to wipe his penis. She said that she gave the item to him and that he threw it down when he was finished using it.

         Sergeant Okins, Deputy Woltman, and Chief Deputy Hanson prepared an application for a warrant authorizing a search of Sexter's property and the taking of a sample of Sexter's DNA. A district court judge approved the application and signed the warrant. The search warrant authorized the seizure of three items or categories of items that were believed to be present on Sexter's farm, including a "white dish towel-like cloth used by suspect following the sexual assault which is believed to be located in the red shed."

         Sergeant Okins, Deputy Woltman, and Chief Deputy Hanson executed the search warrant later that same day. They seized, among other things, four towel-like items: two that are entirely white, one that is white with a floral design, and one that is both light blue and white in a striped pattern. The officers observed but did not seize a red cloth. Later that evening, after Sexter was arrested, Sergeant Okins obtained a DNA sample from him. Forensic testing was conducted on the four cloth items that were seized. According to the complaint, forensic testing of the blue-and-white striped towel revealed the presence of semen that matches Sexter's DNA sample.

         Three days after the warrant was executed, law-enforcement officers interviewed the girl a second time. In the second interview, the girl said that, before she and Sexter were in the truck plowing the driveway, Sexter held a green folding knife to her neck and threatened her. She said that the knife is kept on top of an electrical box in an animal barn. Based on this additional information, officers sought and obtained a second search warrant. Officers executed the second search warrant and seized a knife matching the description.

         In May 2018, the state charged Sexter with third-degree criminal sexual conduct, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(g)(iii) (2016), and second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.222, subd. 1 (2016). In October 2018, Sexter moved to suppress evidence found during the execution of the February 27, 2018 search warrant. The district court conducted a contested omnibus hearing in February 2019. The state called two witnesses: Deputy Woltman and Sergeant Okins. In a post-hearing memorandum, Sexter argued that the first search warrant was not supported by probable cause and that the seizure of the blue-and-white striped towel exceeded the scope of the search warrant. In response, the state argued that the first search warrant was supported by probable cause, that the seizure of the blue-and-white striped towel did not exceed the scope of the search warrant, and alternatively that the seizure of the blue-and-white striped towel is justified by the plain-view exception to the warrant requirement.

         In April 2019, the district court filed an order in which it granted in part and denied in part Sexter's motion. The district court denied the motion with respect to Sexter's probable-cause challenge. The district court granted the motion with respect to the blue-and-white striped towel on the ground that "the seizure of the blue and white striped towel violated the particularity and scope requirement of the warrant." The district court reasoned:

If the blue and white striped towel were purely or mostly white like [the three other towels], the search warrant would easily cover the blue and white striped towel. If the victim had described the towel as "light colored" or simply as a towel, the towel would be admitted. . . . It is not, ...

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