May 24, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: Finding of Half-empty Schnapps Bottle in Vehicle Did Not Negate Police Officers’ Reasonable Suspicion

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Kessler on Thursday, May 3, 2018.

DUI—Evidence—Possession of a Controlled Substance—Search and Seizure—Search Incident to Arrest—Motor Vehicle—Reasonable Suspicion—Cross-Examination.

Defendant was pulled over by the police for speeding. Upon approaching the car with a flashlight, an officer spotted a half-empty schnapps bottle on the floor behind the passenger’s seat. The officer asked defendant for his license, registration, and proof of insurance multiple times before defendant presented his registration and proof of insurance. Defendant admitted he did not have a valid driver’s license. Because defendant showed signs of intoxication, the officer asked him to step out of the vehicle. Defendant needed to use the car door for support to get out of the car, and he eventually admitted he had drunk from the schnapps bottle. Defendant performed roadside sobriety maneuvers unsatisfactorily, and his breath test registered .154g/210L. Defendant was arrested for DUI and placed in the back of the police car. Two other officers then searched the car for further evidence of alcohol consumption and found a bag of cocaine in the console, inches from where defendant sat. Among other things, defendant was convicted of possession of a controlled substance (cocaine).

On appeal, defendant contended that the evidence was insufficient to convict him of possessing a controlled substance (cocaine). He argued that he was not in exclusive possession of the car on the date in question and denied knowing the cocaine was on the car. The possibility that someone else was in the car earlier that day does not change the fact that defendant was in exclusive possession of the vehicle when it was stopped and searched, making him subject to the inference that he knowingly possessed the cocaine. Further, the location of the cocaine and defendant’s testimony that no one else had interacted with the console support the inference. There was sufficient evidence for the jury to convict him on this charge.

Defendant next contended that the trial court should have suppressed evidence related to the recovery of cocaine from his car because the police lacked sufficient grounds to search the car once they seized the half-empty bottle of schnapps. The police are permitted to search a vehicle incident to a lawful arrest. Here, the officer had probable cause to arrest defendant on a DUI charge, defendant initially denied consuming alcohol, and it was likely the officers would find evidence of alcohol while searching defendant’s vehicle. The officers’ reasonable suspicion that the car contained alcohol did not evaporate once the officers found some alcohol. Therefore, the search that uncovered the cocaine was proper.

Finally, at trial, the amount of alcohol in the schnapps bottle when the officer discovered it was contested: the officer said it was half full, while defendant testified it was two-thirds full. During cross-examination, the prosecution asked defendant if the officer “made up” the amount of schnapps in the bottle. Although the prosecution’s question was improper, it did not cast doubt on the reliability of the conviction. The error was not substantial and did not warrant reversal under the plain error rule.

The judgment of conviction was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Speak Your Mind

*