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United States v. Montano

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

January 13, 2020




         Nicholas John Montano has filed a Motion to Suppress Evidence and In Limine. (Doc. 54.) Montano argues that the Court should suppress evidence discovered as a result of an inventory search of his backpack. (Doc. 55 at 5-7.) He also argues that the Court should rule inadmissible evidence of 3.45 grams of methamphetamine discovered while Montano was fleeing from law enforcement. (Id. at 8-10.) On December 13, 2019, the Court held a hearing on the motion. (Doc. 69.) For the following reasons, the motion is denied.

         I. Background

         On August 15, 2018, Billings Police Department Officers Ben Milam and Steven Gaertner responded to a 911 call at the Cracker Barrell restaurant in Billings, Montana. (Doc. 60 at 2.) The caller stated individuals he did not know were blocking his daughter's vehicle in a parking space in the parking lot. (Doc. 60-2 at 3.) Upon arrival, the officers met Trystan White and Kayla Clause. White and Clause informed the officers that an SUV had previously blocked their vehicle in a parking space but had since fled. (Doc. 60-2 at 3.) The SUV's driver was an individual named Nick whom they had travelled to Missoula with earlier that day.

         Nick had left his bag in their vehicle and blocked them in to demand the bag's return. White could not return the bag because she had locked her keys in her car. Her keys remained locked in her car when the officers arrived.

         White and Clause did not know Nick well. They could tell the officers his approximate age, but they could not accurately say what his last name was. White told Officer Milam that Nick's last name was "Montoya." (Doc. 60-1.)

         White did not know what the contents of Nick's bag were, either. Nevertheless, she wanted it removed for fear that Nick would retaliate and damage her vehicle to retrieve it later. White did, however, state it was possible drugs were in the bag and believed "the Cartel" would come after her for the bag's contents. (Doc. 60-2.)

         The officers assisted White in unlocking her vehicle, and White gave them consent to search her vehicle for the bag. (Doc. 60-2.) The officers removed the bag and several other items White said belonged to Nick, including a black pistol holster. (Id.) The officers left the scene and proceeded to the Billings Police Department evidence facility. (Id.)

         Nothing on the bag indicated ownership, and the officers only knew Nick's first name. Officer Milam believed Nick's last name was "Montoya" based on his conversation with White and Clause. Officer Gaertner later ran Nick's name through dispatch along with some of the details about Nick the women gave him, including Nick's general age, his first name, a last name similar to "Montoya," and the fact that Nick had recently been released from prison. Dispatch returned the name "Nick Montano." However, neither Officer Milam nor Officer Gaertner attempted to find contact information for Nick at that time.

         At the evidence facility, the officers conducted an inventory search of the backpack. (Doc. 60-2.) They found a wallet with cash inside it, a baggie they believed could contain an illegal substance, and a pistol magazine. (Id.) The officers stopped inventorying each item once they found the baggie but otherwise ensured nothing dangerous was in the backpack. (Id.) A search warrant was later obtained for the backpack, and testing showed the substance in the baggie to be methamphetamine.

         Around the early morning hours of August 19, 2018, law enforcement discovered Montano driving a stolen vehicle, and he eluded arrest. (Doc. 60-5 at 3.) Montano crashed the vehicle and fled the scene on foot. (Id. at 4.) Officer William Cook received information that Montano may have fled to an apartment complex on North 26th Street. He responded to the location and began clearing apartment units with other officers and looking for Montano. He found a clear baggie with a white crystalline substance laying on the stairs below the complex's top level. The bag was later confirmed to contain 3.45 grams of methamphetamine. The complex had six units, (Id. at 7.), and somewhere around three stories (Officer Cook could not recall exactly how many there were while later testifying). Ultimately, officers found and arrested Montano in an apartment on the lowest level. He had over $1, 600 in cash on his person. (Id. at 8.)

         II. Discussion

         1. Inventory Search of Montano's Backpack

         Generally, the Fourth Amendment requires police to obtain a warrant before searching "houses, papers, and effects." U.S. Const, amend. IV. This includes containers like backpacks. United States v. Ross,456 U.S. 798, 823 (1982); United States v. Block,590 F.2d 535, 541 (4th Cir. 1978) ("[M]ankind's valises, suitcases, footlockers, strong boxes, etc. are frequently the objects of his highest privacy expectations . .. ."). However, inventory searches are a "well-defined exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment." Colorado v. Bertine,479 U.S. 367, 371 (1987). When police are responsible for property taken into their custody, they may secure the property through an inventory search by following standardized procedures. Id. at 372-73. Inventory searches allow police to protect property from unauthorized interference, avert any danger the property may pose to police or others, and guard against claims of theft, vandalism, or negligence. Id. at 373. "To be valid, an inventory search must conform to a standardized and established local procedure, and must be motivated by a ...

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