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State v. Kelsor

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 24, 2019

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
v.
Thomas Kelsor, Defendant Below, Petitioner

          Mercer County 16-F-63

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Thomas Kelsor, by counsel Ruperto Dumapit, appeals the Circuit Court of Mercer County's January 23, 2018, orders denying his motions to suppress evidence seized following a vehicle accident. Respondent State of West Virginia, by counsel Caleb A. Ellis, filed a response. Petitioner filed a reply. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in denying his motions to suppress.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         On August 14, 2014, petitioner was in a car accident in Mercer County. Deputy Logan Addair of the Mercer County Sheriff's Department arrived to the scene and observed a wrecked vehicle and medical personnel tending to petitioner, who was lying on the ground. Deputy Addair attempted to assist the medical personnel in finding out petitioner's identity because petitioner was incoherent and unresponsive to questioning. Deputy Addair did not find any identification on petitioner's person and decided to check the wrecked vehicle for petitioner's identification. He did not find identification in the front compartment of the vehicle, but observed a backpack in the back seat of the vehicle. During a hearing on petitioner's motion to suppress, Deputy Addair testified that he opened the backpack upon the belief that petitioner's wallet and identification might be inside. Instead, Deputy Addair saw a firearm and what appeared to be drugs in the backpack. Deputy Addair clarified during his testimony that he was not looking for evidence of a possible crime. He immediately zipped the backpack and proceeded to other parts of his investigation regarding the wreck. Deputy Addair remained unaware of petitioner's identity until he questioned petitioner's aunt and friend, who arrived to the scene after he initiated his search. After being contacted by Deputy Addair, Sergent Jesse Ruble of the Mercer County Sheriff's Department executed a search warrant in the evening on the same day as the accident and discovered a "pill bottle containing a plastic baggy containing [an] off white chunk substance," a "plastic baggy containing green vegetation," a "set of digital scales," and a firearm in petitioner's backpack.

         On February 10, 2016, petitioner was indicted by a Mercer County grand jury charging him with two counts of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, marijuana and crack cocaine, in violation of West Virginia Code § 60A-4-401. On August 17, 2016, petitioner filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in his backpack. Subsequently, the State filed a response arguing that the warrantless search of petitioner's backpack was reasonable under the community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement. On August 30, 2016, the circuit court held a hearing on petitioner's motion to suppress. Deputy Addair testified regarding his recollection of the events and the actions he took at the scene of the accident on August 14, 2014. Following the presentation of the State's evidence and arguments from the parties, the circuit court denied petitioner's motion to suppress. The circuit court entered an order denying petitioner's motion to suppress on September 8, 2016, finding that Deputy Addair acted reasonably under the community care doctrine.

         On February 23, 2017, petitioner filed a renewed motion to suppress the evidence found during Deputy Addair's search of his vehicle and backpack. The State filed a response in opposition of the motion, and on March 13, 2017, the circuit court held a hearing on the motion. On March 16, 2017, the circuit court entered an order denying petitioner's renewed motion to suppress, finding that the community care doctrine applied and that the search was proper. On January 23, 2018, the circuit court entered two orders reflecting the rulings of each of the suppression hearings. In the first order, dated August 30, 2016, [1] the circuit court found that "Officer Addair was not searching for evidence of a crime and that the search was reasonable under the community caretaker doctrine. He was there to get identification of an injured party." The circuit court further found that under the community caretaker doctrine, Officer Addair acted reasonably. In the second order, which the circuit judge had dated March 13, 2017, [2] the circuit court adopted its findings as set out in the first order denying petitioner's motion to suppress. Petitioner entered a conditional guilty plea that permitted him to appeal the denials of his motions and appeals from the orders denying his motions to suppress.[3]

         We have previously held that

"[o]n appeal, legal conclusions made with regard to suppression determinations are reviewed de novo. Factual determinations upon which these legal conclusions are based are reviewed under the clearly erroneous standard. In addition, factual findings based, at least in part, on determinations of witness credibility are accorded great deference." Syllabus Point 3, State v. Stuart, 192 W.Va. 428, 452 S.E.2d 886 (1994).

         Syl. Pt. 1, State v. Hoston, 228 W.Va. 605, 723 S.E.2d 651 (2012). We have also instructed that

an appellate court should construe all facts in the light most favorable to the State, as it was the prevailing party below. Because of the highly fact-specific nature of a motion to suppress, particular deference is given to the findings of the circuit court because it had the opportunity to observe the witnesses and to hear testimony on the issues. Therefore, the circuit court's factual findings are reviewed for clear error.

         Syl. Pt. 1, in part, State v. Lacy, 196 W.Va. 104, 468 S.E.2d 719 (1996).

         On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in denying his motions to suppress evidence seized following a vehicle accident.[4] In support, petitioner contends that the circuit court erred in applying the community caretaker doctrine exception to justify the search of his vehicle and backpack.[5] He contends that the community caretaker doctrine does not apply to this matter because it requires a prompt or "immediate need" for police to take "swift action" and provide public assistance. Ullom v. Miller, 227 W.Va. 1, 13 n.10, 705 S.E.2d 111, 122 n.10 (2010). Petitioner further argues that in addressing the community caretaker doctrine, this Court has held that evidence related to a traffic stop should be suppressed when the investigating officer was unable to articulate specific evidence showing that a citizen was in immediate peril. See State v. Feicht, No. 15-0112, 2016 WL 746259 ( W.Va. Feb. 25, 2016)(memorandum decision). We do not find petitioner's argument persuasive.

         In applying the community caretaker doctrine exception, this Court has held as follows:

For an encounter to come within the "community caretaker" doctrine exception to the warrant requirement, the State must establish that: (1) given the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable and prudent police officer would have perceived a need to promptly act in the proper discharge of his or her community caretaker duties; (2) Community caretaking must be the objectively reasonable, independent and substantial justification for the intrusion; (3) the police officer's action must be apart from the intent to arrest, or the detection, investigation, or acquisition of criminal evidence; ...

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