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State v. Grmoljez

Supreme Court of Montana

April 9, 2019

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
CHRISTON DOROTHY GRMOLJEZ, Defendant and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: February 6, 2019

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Fourth Judicial District, In and For the County of Mineral, Cause No. DC-2017-44 Honorable Karen S. Townsend, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Dwight J. Schulte, Schulte Law Firm, P.C., Missoula, Montana

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Roy Brown, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana, Ellen Donohue, Mineral County Attorney, Superior, Montana


          Mike McGrath Chief Justice

         ¶1 Christon Dorothy Grmoljez appeals from an order of the Fourth Judicial District Court, Mineral County, denying her motion to suppress. We affirm.

         ¶2 We restate the issue on appeal as follows:

Whether the District Court erred when it denied Grmoljez 's motion to suppress.


         ¶3 On May 21, 2017, Trooper Stephen Gaston (Trooper Gaston) was patrolling Highway 135, a two-lane highway that runs between St. Regis, Montana, and Highway 200 at Ravalli, Montana-an area he has patrolled for nearly nineteen years. Between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m., Trooper Gaston was travelling southbound toward St. Regis when he noticed a vehicle parked in a gravel turnout. Although the vehicle was safely off the road, it was parked partially in the grassy area beyond the gravel. Trooper Gaston reasoned that the vehicle's location was "consistent with someone who's lost power or run out of fuel, and [had] been unable to go ahead and hit the brakes earlier in the gravel pit." Trooper Gaston knew that this particular turnout did not have access to hiking trails and it was not a scenic turnout "where people stopped to go enjoy the views." As Trooper Gaston drove past the vehicle, he noted that the vehicle had two occupants, and the female driver looked at him "without any emotions." Trooper Gaston observed no obvious signs of mechanical distress with the vehicle.

         ¶4 Concerned about whether "there was a mechanical issue [or] if they had run out fuel," Trooper Gaston traveled about a half-mile to a scenic outlook, turned around, and returned to the vehicle. Trooper Gaston pulled in behind the vehicle with his rear deck lights on and informed dispatch he was approaching an "occupied vehicle that's possibly disabled." Trooper Gaston exited his patrol vehicle, approached the driver's side of the vehicle, and motioned for the driver to roll down her window. When the driver rolled the window down Trooper Gaston asked, "Everything OK?" The driver, later identified as Grmoljez, replied, "Yeah . . . um . . . had too many last night, didn't want to drive, so, pulled over." Trooper Gaston testified that as he spoke with Grmoljez he detected an odor of alcohol. At this point, Trooper Gaston testified, the interaction ripened into a DUI investigation. Trooper Gaston asked Grmoljez to step out of the vehicle, conducted a field sobriety test, and Grmoljez agreed to provide a breath sample. The breath sample indicated a blood alcohol concentration of 0.154, above the legal limit in Montana.

         ¶5 The State charged Grmoljez with DUI per se in violation of § 61-8-406(1)(a), MCA. In Justice Court, Grmoljez filed a motion to suppress arguing the first prong of the community caretaker doctrine could not be met. When the Justice Court denied the motion, Grmoljez pleaded guilty pursuant to a plea agreement but retained her right to appeal the Justice Court's decision to the District Court. Grmoljez appealed to the District Court. An evidentiary hearing was held in which Trooper Gaston testified and the dashcam video capturing the interaction was admitted into evidence. The District Court denied the motion to suppress. Grmoljez now appeals.


         ¶6 In reviewing a district court's ruling on a motion to suppress evidence or statements, we determine whether the court's underlying factual findings are clearly erroneous and whether the court correctly interpreted and applied the governing law. State v. Nelson,2004 MT 13, ¶ 5, 319 Mont. 250, 84 P.3d 25. A trial court's findings are clearly erroneous if not supported by substantial evidence, if the court has misapprehended the effect of the evidence, or if this Court's review of the record leaves us with the firm conviction that a mistake has been made. State v. Clayton,2002 MT 67, ¶ 8, 309 Mont. 215, 45 P.3d 30. We review cases that ...

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