State v. Hoover

State v. Hoover, 2017 MT 236 (Sept. 21, 2017) (Sandefur, J.; McKinnon, J., dissenting) (4-1, rev’d)

Issue: Whether the Justice Court erred in denying Hoover’s motion to suppress.

Short Answer: Yes.


Facts: On a warm summer night in 2013. Steven Hoover and an adult female acquaintance drove into an ungated, 24-hour private mini-storage complex near Kalispell, and parked in a secluded spot near the back to engage in consensual intimacy. A deputy sheriff patrolling the adjacent automobile dealership noticed the truck parked in the dark. He stopped and turned off his lights, and saw the silhouettes of two people in the truck. Based on his experience, he suspected a storage unit break-in and summoned other law enforcement officers to assist him. The deputies and a highway patrol trooper gathered on foot at the entrance of the complex to sneak up on the truck.

Sgt. Meredith crept up behind the pickup, and testified that he could see one person in the passenger seat and one person in the driver seat. He suspected the driver might be engaged in illegal drug activity but articulated no specific observation, fact, or circumstance indicative of drug use. The four officers walked up to the truck and lit up the interior of the cab with a flashlight, where they saw Hoover sitting with his penis exposed, masturbating, while his fully clothed female companion watched. The officers saw no indication of a possible break-in, illegal drug use, or other illegal activity, and did not observe any indication that the female companion was in distress.

Nonetheless, the officers began questioning Hoover and the woman. One or more of the officers noticed an alcoholic odor and requested a preliminary breath test. Hoover consented, and blew .05. Upon further inquiry, the officers determined Hoover was on probation. At the direction of the on-call probation officer, the officers arrested Hoover on suspicion of violating the alcohol restriction of his probation. Upon searching Hoover after his arrest, a small marijuana pip with residue was found in Hoover’s pants pocket.

Hover moved to suppress all evidence on the grounds that the officers lacked particularized suspicion to detain and question him. The justice court denied the motion, reasoning that no constitutional seizure of Hoover’s person occurred. Hoover pled no contest to the drug paraphernalia charge, received a six-month deferred sentence, and appealed the denial of his suppression motion under a reservation of rights to the district court.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court concluded that under the totality of the circumstances, four uniformed police officers converging on the pickup was a constitutional seizure requiring particularized suspicion. It remanded to the justice court for an evidentiary hearing. On remand, the justice court again denied the motion to suppress. On appeal, the district court affirmed, concluding that sufficient particularized suspicion of criminal activity existed to detain Hoover. Hoover appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: Hoover was seized when the officers converged on his vehicle. As a limited exception to the warrant requirement, a law enforcement officer may stop and temporarily detain a person for investigative purposes without probable cause for an arrest if, based on specific and articulable facts, the officer has an objectively reasonable particularized suspicion that the person is engaged or about to engage in criminal activity. Particularized suspicion requires more than mere generalized suspicion or an undeveloped hunch of criminal activity. Meredith certainly articulated a reasonable suspicion that an illegal break-in might possibly be in progress, thus warranting additional investigation in the performance of his official duty. For this undeveloped suspicion to ripen into an objectively reasonable, particularized suspicion of criminal activity, the officers needed additional “specific and articulable facts” indicating that the occupants of the vehicle had committed, were committing, or were about to commit a specific criminal offense.

Sgt. Meredith’s general awareness that people typically engage in illegal drug use in secluded places was not further supported by any more specific observation, sound, odor, or other evidence indicative of illegal drug use, much less a storage unit break-in. The officers’ initial generalized suspicions did not ripen into particularized suspicion of a break-in or illegal drug use.

Reasonable or not, the officers’ belief that adults generally do not engage in consensual sexual activity in vehicles falls far short of what is necessary for an objectively reasonable, particularized suspicion of illegal sexual activity. The officers’ post-seizure observations could not form a lawful basis for particularized suspicion justifying the stop in the first place.

Justice McKinnon’s Dissent: Justice McKinnon believes that the only issue to resolve is whether police had particularized suspicion of unlawful activity at the time police announced their presence to Hoover. The Court does not conclude that any of the justice court’s findings of fact are clearly erroneous. This case is similar to Rodriguez, and the majority’s attempt to distinguish Rodriguez fails. In Justice McKinnon’s opinion, “the Court’s description of the objective data Sgt. Meredith relied upon to draw reasonable inferences of criminal activity as ‘only’ a ‘generalized’ suspicion of wrongdoing does the citizens of this State a disservice.” ¶ 41. She disagrees with the Court’s conclusion “that these facts and the inferences drawn therefrom did not warrant further investigation by police; that is, approaching the vehicle to inquire of Hoover what he was doing.” Id.