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State v. Wills

Supreme Court of North Dakota

June 27, 2019

State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee
v.
Michael Benjamin Wills, Defendant and Appellant

          Appeal from the District Court of McLean County, South Central Judicial District, the Honorable Cynthia Feland, Judge.

          Ladd R. Enckson, State's Attorney Office, Washburn, ND, for plaintiff and appellee; on brief

          Laura C. Ringsak, Bismarck, ND, for defendant and appellant.

          OPINION

          CROTHERS, JUSTICE.

         [¶1] Michael Wills appeals from a criminal judgment entered after he conditionally pled guilty to possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress evidence. We reverse the district court criminal judgment and remand to permit Wills to withdraw his guilty plea.

         I

         [¶2] In December 2017 a McLean County Sheriff K-9 unit stopped a car for speeding on a county road one and one-half miles from Max. The deputy approached the vehicle four times during the traffic stop. On the first approach the deputy observed the passenger smoking a cigarette and "acting reserved." The deputy also noted a firearm in the vehicle. Both Wills and the passenger provided identification. The deputy asked why Wills was on the county road and Wills said he and his passenger were traveling from Mmot to Douglas. Despite their route being five to ten miles longer than the most direct route, the deputy did not inquire further regarding the purpose or route of the trip.

         [¶3] The deputy began walking to his patrol vehicle to start background checks on the occupants when Wills called him back. On this second approach Wills provided documentation from the FBI regarding his firearm possession. After a short interaction, the deputy returned to his patrol vehicle and retrieved records for both individuals. Wills had a valid driver's license and neither occupant had open warrants. Further criminal history searches on both individuals revealed convictions including for drug offenses, but no current cases or probation. The deputy wrote a warning for exceeding the speed limit and approached the vehicle a third time to ask about the firearm.

         [¶4] The deputy did not deliver the warning for speeding on the third approach. Instead, he asked Wills for more information regarding the FBI documentation for firearm possession. The deputy was unfamiliar with the document and wanted clarification. After the inquiry, the deputy returned to his vehicle to finish the background checks and verify the documentation for firearm possession. During his time in the patrol vehicle, and before the fourth and final approach, the deputy decided he would search Wills' vehicle with or without Wills' consent.

         [¶5] The fourth approach to the vehicle began with the deputy issuing the written warning for speeding and ending the traffic stop. According to the deputy's report, "I ended my traffic stop and asked for consent to search the vehicle." Wills refused. The deputy instructed Wills to turn off the vehicle and wait inside while a K-9 completed a "sniff of the vehicle perimeter to check for contraband. When the K-9 alerted on the passenger door, the deputy expanded the search and found controlled substances and paraphernalia.

         [¶6] Wills moved to suppress the evidence based on an unlawful search and seizure in violation of his Fourth Amendment and North Dakota constitutional rights. Wills argues the deputy was unable to articulate reasonable suspicion to extend his seizure after completion of the traffic stop and acted upon a mere hunch. The district court denied the motion and found the deputy, based on his training and experience, believed further criminal activity justified the continued investigation after the traffic stop ended. The district court found the deputy formed reasonable and articulable suspicion from the totality of the circumstances, including smoking behaviors, the indirect route of travel, the passenger's nervousness, and the occupants' criminal records.

         II

         [¶7] In reviewing a district court's decision on a motion to suppress we defer to the district court's findings of fact, and we resolve conflicts in testimony in favor of affirmance because we recognize the district court is in a superior position to assess the witnesses' credibility and weigh the evidence. State v. Schmidt, 2015 ND 134, ¶ 5, 864 N.W.2d 265. "A district court's findings of fact on a motion to suppress will not be reversed if there is sufficient competent evidence fairly capable of supporting the court's findings, and the decision is not contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence." Id. (quoting State v. DeCoteau,1999 ND 77, ¶ 6, 592 N.W.2d 579). Questions of law are fully reviewable, and whether a finding of fact meets a legal ...


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