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State v. Harper

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, First Division

April 11, 2017

STATE OF MISSOURI, Plaintiff-Appellant,
GEORGE OWEN HARPER, Defendant-Respondent.



          DON E. BURRELL, J.

         The State appeals the suppression of statements George Owen Harper ("Defendant") made to a deputy sheriff who stopped Defendant's vehicle to question him about potential criminal activity. The State claims the suppression (based on the trial court's conclusion that a Miranda[1] violation had occurred) was erroneous because Defendant was not in custody at the time of the questioning. Finding merit in that claim, we reverse the trial court's order suppressing Defendant's statements and remand the matter for further proceedings on the State's misdemeanor charges of unlawful use of a weapon and two counts of third-degree assault. See sections 571.030.1 and 565.070.[2]

         Applicable Principles of Review and Governing Law

         We "will reverse a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress only if it is clearly erroneous." State v. Holman, 502 S.W.3d 621, 624 (Mo. banc 2016). "This Court reviews a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress in the light most favorable to the ruling and defers to the trial court's determinations of credibility. The inquiry is limited to a determination of whether the trial court's decision is supported by substantial evidence." State v. Stover, 388 S.W.3d 138, 155 (Mo. banc 2012) (citation omitted). We owe no deference to the trial court on its legal conclusions, which we review de novo. State v. Gaw, 285 S.W.3d 318, 319 (Mo. banc 2009).

         "Missouri courts analyze issues regarding the privilege against self-incrimination claimed under the Missouri Constitution in a manner consistent with analysis of those arising under the federal constitution." State v. Brooks, 185 S.W.3d 265, 273 (Mo. App. W.D. 2006). "Miranda warnings are not required every time the police question an individual." State v. Glass, 136 S.W.3d 496, 510 (Mo. banc 2004). Because "[a] criminal suspect is entitled to Miranda warnings once the suspect is subjected to a custodial interrogation[, ]" Stover, 388 S.W.3d at 155, "[s]tatements obtained during a custodial interrogation not preceded by Miranda warnings are subject to suppression at trial." Id. at 155. "[T]he U.S. Supreme Court has determined that the 'in custody' determination is to be reviewed as a matter of law." State v. Brooks, 185 S.W.3d 265, 274 (Mo. App. W.D. 2006) (citing Thompson v. Keohane, 516 U.S. 99, 111-15 (1995)).

          "In Missouri, 'custodial interrogation' is defined as questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way." Glass, 136 S.W.3d at 511. "That the dictates of Miranda do not apply in the context of a valid 'Terry stop' was established in Berkemer, where the Court held that 'persons temporarily detained pursuant to [Terry] stops are not "in custody" for the purposes of Miranda.'" State v. Tally, 153 S.W.3d 888, 896 (Mo. App. S.D. 2005) (quoting Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 440 (1984)); see also Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 22 (1968). Thus, depending upon events following such a temporary detention, "a valid Terry stop may evolve into a custodial setting in which the dictates of Miranda will apply." Tally, 153 S.W.3d at 896.

         Evidentiary and Procedural History

         St. Clair County Sheriff's Corporal Alec Lawson ("Corporal Lawson") was the only witness at the July 2016 suppression hearing, and he provided the following testimony. After dark on the evening of February 1, 2016, while acting as a patrol supervisor, Corporal Lawson activated the emergency lights on his vehicle to stop a truck Defendant was operating on Highway 82.[3] Corporal Lawson made the stop because his dispatcher had announced that someone named Lois Lyke had called to report that Defendant "had fired a weapon at her on Northeast 450 Road. And, as she was leaving that area, [Defendant] was following her down the roadway." It was Corporal Lawson's understanding that Ms. Lyke had indicated that she "had stopped at Osceola Cheese and the suspect vehicle was headed southbound on 13 Highway." The suspect vehicle was described as "a dark or black-colored Ford truck, kind of two tone with a gray bottom."

         Corporal Lawson knew Defendant "prior to this incident[, ]" but he "did no independent investigation" into the information provided by the dispatcher. Instead, he responded to the reported area, where he saw a truck matching the description given by Ms. Lyke. The truck was "traveling southbound, taking the exit ramp onto 82 Highway." When Corporal Lawson tried "to confirm" the license plate number on the truck, it "came back not on file."

         After Corporal Lawson activated his lights, Defendant drove his vehicle into a parking lot and stopped. Corporal Lawson did not "stop [the vehicle] for any kind of traffic violation"; rather, he wanted to talk to Defendant about "[t]he allegations that Mrs. [sic] Lyke had called in to the sheriff's office."

         Corporal Lawson approached the vehicle and recognized Defendant as the driver. Defendant "remain[ed] seated in [his] vehicle the entire time[.]" Corporal Lawson did not tell Defendant that he was under arrest at any point during the encounter. Corporal Lawson did not tell Defendant that he had the right to refuse to answer questions and the right to request an attorney. After Defendant provided Corporal Lawson with "a statement . . . about the allegations[, ]" Defendant was allowed to leave. The entire encounter lasted "[a]pproximately five to seven minutes."

         About a month later, the State filed a misdemeanor information charging Defendant with unlawful use of a weapon by knowingly shooting "a firearm across a highway" and two counts of third degree assault by purposely placing Ms. Lyke and another woman "in apprehension of immediate physical injury by standing at the end of the driveway and shooting a firearm into the road after [each woman] drove by him." Defendant moved to suppress "all evidence arising out of [his] unlawful detention and unlawful arrest[.]"

         At the conclusion of the suppression hearing, defense counsel argued that there were two issues; first, whether "it takes more than a . . . dispatch call to justify the stopping, the detention of a member of the public who is violating no other law"; and, second, whether an officer investigating a crime has "any obligation to provide [the individual being questioned with] Miranda warnings" given that "custody is a multifaceted thing." The trial court correctly indicated at the end of the suppression hearing that the legal issue to be decided was "whether there was an obligation to Mirandize . . . . given the facts of the . . . stop."[4] The trial court ...

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