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People v. Alemayehu.

2021 COA 69. No. 17CA1911.  Fourth Amendment—Search and Seizure—Warrantless Search—Plain View Exception—Custodial Interrogation—Miranda—Prosecutorial Misconduct.

May 20, 2021

Defendant backed into a car in a parking lot and then parked 20 to 30 yards away in the same lot with the engine running. A bystander reported the accident. Deputies arrived on the scene, and when looking for defendant’s registration and insurance, they noticed a pocket at the bottom of the driver’s side door containing unlabeled orange prescription pill bottles. Defendant denied owning the bottles. A deputy opened the pill bottles and determined they were oxycodone. Meanwhile, another deputy looking in the glove box for defendant’s registration and insurance discovered another bottle of pills. Defendant was convicted of failure to report an accident and possession of a controlled substance.

On appeal, defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence to sustain his conviction for possession of a controlled substance. However, there was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that defendant knew he possessed the pills and they were a controlled substance, including the facts that defendant was the owner, driver, and sole occupant of the vehicle; the pill bottles were in the driver’s side door; and defendant made statements to police that he was aware of the pills and they were for back pain.

Defendant also argued that the trial court erred by not suppressing evidence that was obtained as a result of an illegal seizure and search of the pill bottles. A search of a seized container’s concealed contents must be either pursuant to a search warrant or justified by an exception to the warrant requirement. The mere observation of an unlabeled prescription pill bottle did not give deputies probable cause to associate it with criminal activity. Therefore, though deputies lawfully seized the pill containers under the plain view exception, they lacked authority under the exception to further inspect them without a warrant. Consequently, the trial court erred. Further, the improperly seized oxycodone evidence was critical to prosecution of the controlled substance count, and its admission was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Defendant also contended that the trial court erred in admitting statements the deputies obtained in violation of Miranda. Here, before deputies arrested defendant and advised him of his Miranda rights, they spoke with him for only about 17 minutes in a public place in the middle of the day. Defendant was not patted down or otherwise touched, and he was not told that he would not be released. Under the totality of the circumstances, defendant was not subjected to custodial interrogation, and deputies were not required to advise him of his Miranda rights. Therefore, the trial court did not err.

Defendant further contended that the trial court reversibly erred by admitting into evidence redacted footage from the deputies’ body cameras because parts of the footage contained hearsay and impermissible comments about his veracity. However, all but one of the statements were admissible as nonhearsay to provide context for defendant’s statements, and admission of the one statement that qualified as hearsay did not violate defendant’s confrontation rights because the deputy testified at trial and was subject to cross-examination. Further, the comments about defendant’s veracity do not warrant reversal.

Lastly, defendant contended that reversal was required because of prosecutorial misconduct. Although the prosecutor erred by telling the jury that defendant was manufacturing lies, the court sustained defendant’s objection and ordered the prosecutor to rephrase. Defense counsel did not object further or seek other relief.

The part of the judgment pertaining to defendant’s conviction for possession of a controlled substance was reversed and the matter was remanded for a new trial on that count. The part of the judgment pertaining to defendant’s conviction and sentence for failure to report an accident was affirmed.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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