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State v. Koenig

Supreme Court of Vermont

June 3, 2016

State of Vermont
v.
Amy Koenig

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Windsor Unit, Criminal Division Theresa S. DiMauro, J.

          David J. Cahill, Windsor County State's Attorney, and Glenn Barnes, Deputy State's Attorney, White River Junction, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Brian R. Marsicovetere and Robert D. Lees of Marsicovetere Law Group, P.C., White River Junction, for Defendant-Appellant.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1. Defendant appeals the denial of her motion to suppress evidence that ultimately led to her driving-under-the-influence (DUI) processing. We affirm.

         ¶ 2. On January 22, 2014 at about 6:30 p.m., the Vermont State Police received a tip from an identified caller about the erratic operation of a motor vehicle in the Town of Bethel. The caller provided the vehicle's license plate number, which the State Police used to identify the registered owner and her address. The arresting trooper parked on South Main Street in front of the listed address, at which there was a single story structure. To the right of the main building the trooper observed an attached structure covered by a roof and enclosed on three sides. The fourth side of the structure, the one which faced the street, had two large open doorways framed in the size and shape of garage doors, but without any actual doors, such that the interior of the structure was open at all times to plain view from the street. The trooper did not observe any signs or placards against trespassing or entry to the attached structure, or to any other area of the property.

         ¶ 3. From where he was parked, the trooper saw the suspect vehicle parked inside the left bay of the attached structure. He also saw two entryways to the building: one along the shared wall inside the attached structure, and one on the left side of the front of the building. The trooper saw an illuminated paved walkway with a railing leading to the entryway on the left side of the building. He also saw two signs for a business, Paini Monuments, one at either end of the walkway: at the end closest to the street, a large sign reading "Paini Monuments Established 1959" with a telephone number hung from a signpost, and above the door to the entryway, a smaller sign, also related to the business, was suspended from the left-hand front-corner of the building's roof. When asked if he thought the entryway on the left side of the building was a business entrance, the trooper stated that he could not "say one hundred percent if it is or is not." It was his belief that the door inside the attached structure to the right of the building provided access to the residence.

         ¶ 4. The trooper exited his vehicle and approached the entryway inside the attached structure. As he entered the left bay of the attached structure, walking with the suspect vehicle on his right and the shared wall of the attached structure and the building on his left, he saw damage to the driver's side mirror and front-left fender of the car involved in the report. As he neared the entryway, defendant was readily observable through the glass of the doorway. Defendant opened the door and identified herself. The trooper subsequently conducted field sobriety tests and administered a preliminary breath test. Defendant was arrested on suspicion of operating a motor vehicle on a public highway while under the influence of intoxicating liquor in violation of 23 V.S.A. § 1201(a)(2).

         ¶ 5. On June 1, 2014, defendant was arraigned on a one count information alleging a violation of 23 V.S.A. § 1201(a)(2) for operating a motor vehicle on a public highway while under the influence of intoxicating liquor. Defendant timely requested a civil suspension hearing.

         ¶ 6. On June 11, 2014, defendant filed a motion to suppress in the criminal and civil cases, and a motion to dismiss in the civil case. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, and ordered a motion hearing on the suppression issue. At the motion hearing, defendant sought to suppress evidence obtained and observed by the trooper as he walked through the attached structure. She argued that the trooper conducted an illegal warrantless search within the curtilage of her home when he entered the attached structure, in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Chapter I, Article 11 of the Vermont Constitution. The State opposed defendant's motion, asserting that constitutional protections are not absolutely extended to the curtilage. The trial court declined to address whether the curtilage is afforded the same protection as a residence. On the facts established above, the trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress, finding that a reasonable person could conclude that the entryway on the left side of the building was a business entrance; that a reasonable person would consider the entryway inside the attached structure to be a point of normal public access; and that defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the interior of the attached structure, which it characterized as a carport. Defendant appeals.

         ¶ 7. "A motion to suppress evidence presents a mixed question of fact and law." State v. Bauder, 2007 VT 16, ¶ 9, 181 Vt. 392, 924 A.2d 38. "On appeal from a denial of a motion to suppress, we review the trial court's findings of facts deferentially and reverse only if the findings are clearly erroneous." State v. Ford, 2010 VT 39, ¶ 7, 188 Vt. 17, 998 A.2d 684 (citing State v. Bryant, 2008 VT 39, ¶ 9, 183 Vt. 355, 950 A.2d 467). "Under this standard, 'we will uphold the [trial] court's factual findings unless, taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, and excluding the effect of modifying evidence, there is no reasonable or credible evidence to support them.' " Id. (quoting State v. Rheaume, 2005 VT 106, ¶ 6, 179 Vt. 39, 889 A.2d 711). Whether the facts as found meet the proper standard justifying a particular police action is a question of law. State v. Mara, 2009 VT 96A, ¶ 6, 186 Vt. 389, 987 A.2d 939. We review de novo the trial court's legal conclusion-or "constitutional fact"-as to whether the trial court's findings establish a reasonable expectation of privacy sufficient to afford protections under the Fourth Amendment and Article 11. State v. Sprague, 2003 VT 30, ¶ 24, 175 Vt. 123, 824 A.2d 539.

         ¶ 8. Defendant challenges the trial court's factual findings and legal conclusion, arguing that the court: (1) erred when it found that the attached structure was a carport, rather than a garage; and (2) incorrectly concluded that the trooper lawfully entered the curtilage of her home for a "knock and talk, " because the entryway inside the attached structure was not a normal access route for anyone visiting the residence.

         ¶ 9. Defendant's first challenge is not to a finding of fact so much as to the trial court's terminology. Defendant challenges the trial court's description of the attached structure as a carport, rather than as a garage. She argues that Merriam-Webster defines carport as "a shelter for a car that has open sides and that is usually attached to the side of a building, " whereas the evidence at trial demonstrates that the attached structure, although a shelter for a car attached to the side of a building, was enclosed on three sides. For this reason, defendant argues that the trial court should have described the structure as a garage, defined as "a building or part of a building in which a car, truck, etc. is kept." The State, borrowing from Shakespeare, asks "what's in a name?" William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet act 2, sc. 2 ("That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."). More specifically, the State asserts that the distinction is irrelevant because defendant's expectation of privacy does not depend on whether the trial court describes the structure as a carport or a garage, but rather on the nature of the structure itself.

         ¶ 10. Defendant makes a reasonable, if immaterial, argument. Because neither the trial court's factual findings nor its legal conclusions depended in any way on whether the structure was a garage or a carport, the trial court's description of the structure had no legal significance. Neither "carport" nor "garage" are terms of art under Fourth Amendment law, and neither has a technical or specialized meaning in this context. See Black's Law Dictionary 1483 (7th ed. 1999) (defining term of art as "a word or phrase having a specific, precise meaning in a given specialty, apart from its general meaning in ordinary contexts."). The description of the structure as a carport, or as a garage, will not affect application of Fourth Amendment and Article 11 principles. ...


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