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State v. $127

Supreme Court of North Dakota

December 7, 2017

State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee
$127, 930 United States Currency, Defendant and Anoulak Thornsavan - Owner, Interested Party and Appellant

         Appeal from the District Court of Cass County, East Central Judicial District, the Honorable Steven E. McCullough, Judge.

          Kimberlee J. Hegvik, Assistant State's Attorney, Fargo, North Dakota, for plaintiff and appellee.

          Craig E. Cascarano (argued), Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Charles J. Sheeley (appeared), Fargo, North Dakota, for interested party and appellant.


          TUFTE, JUSTICE.

         [¶ 1] Anoulak Thornsavan appeals from an order denying his motion to suppress and from the civil judgment forfeiting $127, 930 to the State. We affirm, concluding there was reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop and a Miranda warning was not required.


         [¶ 2] In July 2015, Officer Mason Ware pulled over Thornsavan, along with his passenger, Saravanh Phommakhy, on Interstate 94. Ware stopped Thornsavan because it appeared to him that the car had excessive window tint. Prior to the stop, Ware checked the vehicle registration in his database, which indicated that the vehicle was registered to an individual born in 1937. Ware noted that both Thornsavan and Phommakhy looked as though they were in their late 20's or early 30's. Ware also found it significant that neither Thornsavan or Phommakhy acknowledged him as he drove alongside them; instead, they looked straight ahead.

         [¶ 3] Walking toward the stopped car, Ware saw a pillow, blanket, and backpack in the backseat of the car, but not any luggage. Soon after making contact, Ware asked for licenses and registration. When Thornsavan reached into his center console to obtain his information, Ware saw a "bundle of cash" in the console with a $50 bill on top of the stack and a $20 bill on the bottom. Thornsavan then gave Ware a photocopy of the vehicle title. The photocopy indicated that the car had been purchased just four days prior. Ware testified that Thornsavan and Phommakhy appeared nervous, avoided eye contact, stuttered, and displayed tremors in their hands. Ware tested the tint of Thornsavan's driver-side window, and the test indicated a violation of the vehicle tint law. Ware asked Thornsavan to sit in his squad car, and Thornsavan complied.

         [¶ 4] While in the squad car, Ware checked the licenses and registration, and inquired into Thornsavan's travel plans. Thornsavan told Ware that he and Phommakhy were driving "straight through" to Seattle to visit a friend who was going to show them around the city. Ware testified that, since the day of the stop was a Friday and Thornsavan said he was planning on returning by Monday, Thornsavan would apparently be spending only a few hours in Seattle. Thornsavan originally stated that he was returning to Minneapolis by Monday, but later said his return day would be Tuesday.

         [¶ 5] Ware's questioning then turned to the recent car purchase. Ware testified that Thornsavan didn't give him a direct answer right away as to how much he paid for his car. Thornsavan changed his recollection of the sale price from $4, 400 to $4, 300. Ware thought this was odd since Thornsavan had just purchased the car. Additionally, the title indicated the car was purchased for $2, 500. Thornsavan told Ware that he had put $2, 500 as the price on the title because the seller had told him to write in any amount and Thornsavan decided to write $2, 500 to avoid paying higher taxes. Next, Ware inquired into the relationship between Thornsavan and Phommakhy. Thornsavan told Ware that the two were cousins and roommates. The addresses on their driver's licenses, however, did not match. Thornsavan also became increasingly nervous while in the squad car, especially so when Ware's computer made noises or when Ware was typing. Thornsavan asked multiple times if everything was "checking out" with the computer searches.

         [¶ 6] Ware asked Thornsavan about the contents of his car just prior to issuing a warning citation. Specifically, Ware testified:

I had asked him if there was any drugs, guns, anything illegal in the vehicle, any large sums of money, which during the answering, he did--his answers were consistent up until I asked him about the large sums of money. At which point, he had stated, "No, no" twice instead of the--before he was just saying, "Oh, no, " "No, " and then when it came to large sums of money, he did say, "No, no."

         Ware then issued Thornsavan a warning citation for the excessive tint. Ware asked Thornsavan if he would consent to a search of his vehicle. Thornsavan declined. Ware informed Thornsavan that his car would be detained until a drug dog inspected the car, but told Thornsavan he was free to leave. Thornsavan then got out of the car and sat in the ditch.

         [¶ 7] Officer Jed Dahnke arrived with the drug dog, and the dog alerted on the trunk of the car. The officers searched the trunk and found two duffle bags containing vacuum-sealed blocks of cash with dryer sheets in between the sealed layers. The total cash amount found and seized by law enforcement was $127, 930, which included $930 found in the center console. Thornsavan filed a motion to suppress his statements and the money found. The district court denied the motion to suppress and ordered the money to be forfeited.


         [¶ 8] "When reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, we defer to the court's findings of fact and resolve conflicts in the evidence in favor of affirmance." State v. Guscette, 2004 ND 71, ¶ 5, 678 N.W.2d 126.

We will affirm a trial court's disposition of a motion to suppress unless, after resolving conflicting evidence in favor of affirmance, there is insufficient competent evidence fairly capable of supporting the trial court's findings, or the decision is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. Our deferential standard of review recognizes the importance of a trial court's opportunity to assess the credibility of the witnesses.

Id. (citation omitted). Questions of law are reviewed de novo. State v. Genre, 2006 ND 77, ¶ 12, 712 N.W.2d 624.

         [¶ 9] We have stated that "traffic violations, even if considered common or minor, constitute prohibited conduct and, therefore, provide officers with requisite suspicion for conducting investigatory stops." State v. Stadsvold, 456 N.W.2d 295, 296 (N.D. 1990). Here, Ware observed that Thornsavan's vehicle appeared to have excessive tint when he drove next to it. On the basis of his training and experience, Ware had reasonable ...

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