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United States v. Lewis

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

August 25, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Ronald C. Lewis, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky at Lexington. No. 5:15-cr-00020-3-Karen K. Caldwell, Chief District Judge.

         ON BRIEF:

          Roger A. Cox, COX & COX, Fenelton, Pennsylvania, for Appellant.

          Charles P. Wisdom Jr., Lauren Tanner Bradley, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Lexington, Kentucky, for Appellee.

          Before: CLAY, ROGERS, and SUTTON, Circuit Judges.


          ROGERS, Circuit Judge.

         This case presents the question of whether a warrant is required for a police officer, not investigating any wrongdoing, to open the passenger door of a parked truck to ask whether the sleeping occupant of the truck would be able to drive the occupant's intoxicated girlfriend home. Fortunately, the Fourth Amendment does not impose technical prerequisites upon such a natural act of community service.

         On an evening in August 2014, local police officer Greg Turner responded to reports that a woman was intoxicated in a Wal-Mart in London, Kentucky. Once inside the Wal-Mart, Turner found the woman, later identified as Carol Lakes. Officer Turner noticed that Lakes's "balance was off, she was holding herself up by the buggy, she had trouble keeping her eyes open, " and she was "nodding off." Once he got closer, Officer Turner further noticed that Lakes's speech was slurred, her eyes "red and glassy, " and her mouth "real dry." Officer Turner concluded that Lakes was "clearly under the influence, " approached her, and "asked her if she was all right." Lakes told Officer Turner that she had been taking pain pills due to some back trouble.

         Officer Turner then asked Lakes if she was at the Wal-Mart by herself. Lakes answered that she was at Wal-Mart with her boyfriend-later identified as defendant Ronald Lewis-who was outside in his truck. Officer Turner responded: "Well, we'll go see if your boyfriend's all right, talk to him and he can drive you out of here. You can go home." Officer Turner also suggested to Lakes that he would have to arrest her if Lewis could not drive her home. At some point around then, another police officer, Rick Cloyd, arrived at the scene. Lakes told the officers that her boyfriend would in fact be able to drive her home, and led them outside to her boyfriend's truck so that they could "check to make sure that he was all right to drive."

         The officers approached Lewis's four-door Chevy truck, but, because it was dark outside and the truck's windows were tinted, could not tell whether it was occupied. Officer Turner went around to the front-driver side of the truck, looked through the window, and saw Lewis asleep on the passenger side. Officer Cloyd and Lakes went around to the front-passenger side of the truck.

         There is some dispute as to what happened next. Officer Turner later testified that either Officer Cloyd or Lakes opened the front passenger-side door, next to which Lewis was sitting. Lewis testified that it was Officer Cloyd-and not his girlfriend Lakes-who opened the passenger-side door. For the purposes of this opinion, we adopt the district court's assumption that it was Officer Cloyd who opened the door.

          When the door opened, the interior dome light went on, causing Lewis to "startle[]" and "d[o] a little jerk." This light enabled Officer Turner to see that Lewis had a clear plastic baggie on his lap. Lewis tossed the baggie over the truck's console onto the back floorboard.

         Officer Turner suspected that the baggie contained marijuana. Accordingly, he shined his flashlight onto the baggie on the back floorboard, and observed that it contained "like a bluish color stuff in it, " which he thought could be marijuana but might also be blue pills. Officer Turner then opened the truck door, inspected the bag more closely, and saw that it did in fact contain pills. Turner asked Lewis about the pills, and Lewis "stated that he didn't know nothing about them, and that's all he would say." Lewis appeared to be "under the influence" as well, based on his slurred speech. Lewis and Lake were then both arrested. The bag of pills was tested and found to contain 493 oxycodone 30 mg tablets and 5 pills of Xanax, the trade name for the controlled substance alprazolam. An additional four Xanax pills were found on Lewis's person.

         Lewis was indicted on various charges related to the possession of oxycodone and alprazolam in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 846. Lewis moved to suppress all evidence seized in his vehicle as the products of an illegal search. The district court, however, denied Lewis's motion. The district court found that, at least until Officer Turner saw the baggie, the officers' "sole purpose was to find Lakes a safe ride home, " and that the officers "were not investigating a crime." Accordingly, the district court concluded that the officers were initially not engaged in "traditional law enforcement functions" and invoked the "community caretaker" exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. See United States v. Rohrig, 98 F.3d 1506, 1521-22 (6th Cir. 1996). The district court further concluded that, once Officer Turner saw Lewis toss the baggie over the back seat, "the officers' function changed to the investigation of a crime, " such that the community-caretaker exception could not apply from that point forward. However, the district court also held that Lewis's behavior at that point gave Officer Turner probable cause to search the truck under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. See Smith v. Thornburg, 136 F.3d 1070, 1074 (6th Cir. 1998). In particular, the district court noted Lewis's possession of a clear plastic baggie, his "deliberately furtive" action of throwing the baggie into the back seat once he saw the officers, his own slurred speech, and his girlfriend's ...

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