State v. Emerson

State v. Emerson, 2015 MT 254 (Aug. 26, 2015) (Shea, J.) (6-0, rev’d)

Issue: Whether the district court erred in denying Emerson’s motion to suppress because her consent to a search was the fruit of an illegal seizure.

Short Answer: Yes.


Facts: Deputy Robins stopped a vehicle near Shelby because he recognized the driver, Joseph Bentley, and knew there was a felony warrant out for his arrest. Emerson was a passenger in Bentley’s car. Bentley was arrested and the car was released to Emerson.

About an hour later, Emerson went to the Toole County sheriff’s office to request a gas card, but it didn’t have any. Emerson left the buildlng. A few min utes later, the sheriff’s office received a teletype from the Great Falls police department with an attempt to locate the car Emerson was driving. Deputy Robins could see the car was still parked out front with Emerson inside. He went outside, advised Emerson of the attempt to locate the car, asked her to get out of the car, lock the car, give him the keys, and wait while he sorted it out. Before Emerson exitd the vehicle, Deputy Robins said Emerson made a move to close the top of her purse, but it remained partially open, and Deputy Robins saw what he though was an automatic pistol. Emerson left the purse in the vehicle.

While Deputy Robins called the Great Falls police, Emerson went to the front desk and asked if she could retrieve her purse form the car. The dispatcher told Deputy Robins, who went to the car and retrieved the purse. Looking in the top of the open purse, the deputy realized that what he thought was an automatic pistol was a makeup case. He returned to the waiting room, placed the purse between himself and Emerson, turned on his recorder, and asked her if there was anything in the purse that shouldn’t be in there. She said no three times, and he asked if he could look. She said no, and he said the owner of the car gave the department permission to search the whole car, “which would include your property in side the car,” and said “[i]f there’s anything in the purse that shouldn’t be in there, you need to tell me.” Emerson eventually admitted Bentley had given her something to hold for him. At this point, Deputy Robins thought it was a gun.

Deputy Robins had Emerson read and sign a Miranda waiver and a consent to search form. He told her she was not in custody. After she signed the forms, he searched her purse and found a small amount of cocaine and needles.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Emerson was charged with criminal possession of dangerous drugs and of drug paraphernalia. She moved to suppress the evidence, and the district court denied her motion. Emerson appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: The Court’s review convinces it that Emerson was seized, and her seizure violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article II, section 11 of the Montana Constitution. Deputy Robins asked her to get out of the car, lock the doors, give him the keys, and come inside the sheriff’s office. It was midnight in November, she had no transportation, and her purse was locked inside the car. No reasonable person would feel free to leave after an officer tells her to take a seat while he “clears up” a matter that may lead to her arrest, and he has the keys to the locked car where her phone and wallet are stored. No facts were presented showing that the Great Falls Police Department had any facts that would justify seizing Emerson. The owner told Deputy Robins over the pone that she wanted the vehicle held until she could retrieve it. These facts justify seizing the car, but not Emerson. Her confession to contraband in her purse and her consent to the search were fruits of the poisonous tree and are inadmissible.