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State v. Valles

Supreme Court of North Dakota

April 11, 2019

State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee
v.
Joseph Franklin Valles, Defendant and Appellant

          Appeal from the District Court of Ramsey County, Northeast Judicial District, the Honorable Lonnie Olson, Judge.

          Kari M. Agotness, Ramsey County State's Attorney, Devils Lake, N.D., for plaintiff and appellee; submitted on brief.

          Ulysses S. Jones, Devils Lake, N.D., for defendant and appellant.

          OPINION

          TUFTE, JUSTICE.

         [¶1] Joseph Franklin Valles appeals from a criminal judgment and an order denying his motion to suppress. Valles conditionally pled guilty, preserving the right to appeal the order denying his motion to suppress. Valles argues his cell phone was searched without a warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The State argues the cell phone was abandoned and therefore no warrant was required to search the phone. We reverse the suppression order and criminal judgment and remand to allow Valles to withdraw his conditional plea of guilty.

         I

         [¶2] On the evening of April 5, 2018, a cell phone was found in a Devils Lake apartment parking lot. It was brought to the police station the next morning. Officer John Mickelson examined the phone, which was locked with a grid lock. He guessed the unlock pattern by trying patterns convenient to right-handed users and quickly unlocked the phone. Officer Mickelson then opened the photos application and looked at the stored photos, intending to identify the owner from "selfies" and other photos stored in the phone. He was able to identify both Valles and Jessica Bear from photos and a video. Officer Mickelson knew there was a restraining order against Valles from Bear. Officer Mickelson also saw in the photos what appeared to be drugs and drug paraphernalia.

         [¶3] Officer Mickelson showed the photos and video to another officer. He then gave the phone and a description of its contents to Officer Richard Juarez of the Lake Region Narcotics Task Force. Officer Juarez examined the phone's photos, video, Facebook Messenger application, text messages and call log. He found evidence of drug activity and applied for a search warrant for Valles' house, which he recognized from the photos. While executing the search warrant, officers found marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia.

          II

         [¶4] We review a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress as follows:

The trial court's disposition of a motion to suppress will not be reversed if, after conflicts in the testimony are resolved in favor of affirmance, there is sufficient competent evidence fairly capable of supporting the trial court's findings, and the decision is not contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. That standard of review recognizes the importance of the trial court's opportunity to observe the witnesses and assess their credibility, and we accord great deference to its decision in suppression matters.

State v. Montgomery, 2018 ND 20, ¶ 4, 905 N.W.2d 754 (quotation marks omitted). "Whether findings of fact meet a legal standard is a question of law. While we do not conduct a de novo review of the findings of fact, questions of law are fully reviewable." Id. Further, "[t]his Court reviews constitutional rights violations under the de novo standard of review." State v. Williams, 2015 ND 103, ¶ 5, 862 N.W.2d 831. "Whether law enforcement violated constitutional prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure is a question of law." State v. Lark, 2017 ND 251, ¶ 12, 902 N.W.2d 739.

         [¶5] The Fourth Amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing ...

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