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State v. Conley

Supreme Court of Montana

April 10, 2018

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
CHANCE RYAN CONLEY, Defendant and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: December 28, 2017

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Sixteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Custer, Cause No. DC 2015-53 Honorable Michael B. Hayworth, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Chad Wright, Appellate Defender, Alexander H. Pyle, Assistant Appellate

          For Appellee: Wyatt A. Glade, Custer County Attorney, Miles City, Montana


          Mike McGrath, Chief Justice

         ¶1 This appeal arises from the Sixteenth Judicial District Court's denial of a motion to suppress evidence discovered in the course of a probationary search. We affirm.

         ¶2 We restate the issue on appeal as follows:

         Did the District Court err in denying Conley's motion to suppress?


         ¶3 On May 19, 2015, Chance Ryan Conley (Conley) was given a deferred sentence for two counts of criminal possession of dangerous drugs, methamphetamine. Conley was placed on probation and assigned to probation officer Tom Fulton (Fulton). Conley's sentence contained numerous conditions and restrictions, including requiring daily reporting to his probation officer, abstention from illegal drug use, and consent to probationary searches. Relevant to this appeal is Condition 8 of Conley's deferred sentence:

Upon reasonable suspicion that the Defendant has violated the conditions of supervision, a probation and parole officer may search the person, vehicle, and residence of the Defendant, and the Defendant must submit to such search. A probation and parole officer may authorize a law enforcement agency to conduct a search, provided the probation and parole officer determines reasonable suspicion exists that the Defendant has violated the conditions of supervision.

         ¶4 After his supervision was transferred to probation Officer Kristi Moore (Moore), Conley immediately began failing to report. Conley reported in person on June 11 and June 15, 2015; he admitted to using methamphetamine and signed admissions to that fact. Conley made no contact after June 15, 2015. He had multiple probation violations, including continued drug use, lack of employment, lack of compliance with the treatment court, and a current arrest warrant. Another probationer reported Conley was actively using methamphetamine.

         ¶5 The record shows that on July 6, 2015, Moore and Fulton went to Conley's last known address, hoping to locate him. When Moore and Fulton arrived they observed a white, four-door vehicle in the driveway with at least two occupants. The driver, later identified as Kevin Baker (Baker), attempted to pull out of the driveway when Moore blocked their exit. Conley quickly got out of the front passenger's side of the vehicle. Moore placed Conley in handcuffs and searched his person; no weapons or contraband were found. Conley and Baker were instructed to sit on the ground.

         ¶6 Moore and Fulton were not aware of the ownership status of the vehicle. They informed the men that the vehicle would be searched because of the "red flags" of on-going drug use Conley exhibited, including dirty and shabby clothing, disheveled physical appearance and the admission that they had been up all night, as well as the conditions of his probation. While Moore waited with the two men, Fulton looked into the passenger side of the vehicle. Fulton testified that from outside of the vehicle he could see a glasses pouch on the back-passenger's seat, and that glasses pouches are often used by drug users to store their drug kits. Upon examination of the glasses pouch, Fulton discovered needles and a baggy with a crystal-like substance. Conley admitted it was his. Fulton placed the glasses pouch on the top of the vehicle and contacted law enforcement.

         ¶7 Sergeant Kord Merical and Sergeant Barney Murnin arrived at Conley's home. Conley and Baker claimed all personal items in the vehicle and consented to a search, where additional needles and crystal-like substances were discovered. Sergeant Merical requested dispatch provide information on the registered owner of the vehicle; neither Conley nor Baker were identified as the registered owner. Conley and Baker were both arrested. Moore filed an affidavit in support of a petition to revoke Conley's sentence based on eight probation violations. Conley was charged with three new crimes: misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia, misdemeanor possession of marijuana, and felony possession of methamphetamine. Conley pleaded not guilty.

         ¶8 Conley's counsel filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized as a result of the vehicle search, arguing there was no inquiry to determine if Conley was the owner of or if he had control over the white vehicle. On December 7, 2015, the District Court denied the motion, finding that a probationer need not be a driver or owner of a vehicle in order to initiate a probationary search of the vehicle, so long as the probationer was a passenger immediately prior to the search. The State agreed to dismiss the marijuana possession charge and Conley pled guilty to the felony methamphetamine and misdemeanor ...

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