State v. Malloy, 2021 WL 209290 (Utah 2021)
The Utah Supreme Court took a big step away from precedent in consideration of the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Jones (565 U.S. 400 (2012)). An officer was dispatched on a call that Robert Malloy, the driver of a truck, had fallen asleep and hit a light pole in a parking lot. While the officer was en route, dispatch broadcast that the driver had initially passed out, awakened, backed into a parking space and passed out again. When the officer arrived, a witness approached and told him what had happened, explaining he was worried because the driver looked gray and might be dead.
The officer approached the truck and saw the driver was “kind of slumped, slouched forward” over the steering wheel and “appeared to be unconscious.” Without knocking, the officer opened the door. When he did, Malloy immediately turned and looked at him. The officer saw a drug pipe on the floor between Malloy’s feet and a meth pipe on the driver’s seat when Malloy got out of the truck. The officer found heroin in Malloy’s pocket in the search incident to arrest. A subsequent blood test showed methamphetamine in Malloy’s body.
Officers should consider taking an extra moment to knock on the window or door of a passed-out driver.
Malloy asked the court to suppress the evidence seen when the officer opened the truck door, arguing the officer should have knocked on the window first to see if he would respond. The prosecution argued opening the door was justified under the emergency aid exception. The court of appeals held that the officer could have opened the door to investigate Malloy’s condition as part of a lawful traffic stop and a reasonable investigation of the driver.
State supreme court precedent stated there is no “functional” or “constitutionally relevant distinction between an officer opening a car door and a driver being asked to do so” (State v. James, 13 P.3d 576 (Utah 2000)).The court repudiated that precedent, citing instead the “property-based” inquiry that considers the “common-law trespass” analysis embraced in United States v. Jones. The court held that, “In light of cases like Jones, we hold that there may well be a ‘functional,’ constitutionally relevant distinction between an officer opening a car door and a driver being asked to open it … we nonetheless affirm the denial of Malloy’s motion to suppress.”
Though the application of this decision is limited to officers in Utah, the logic may well be followed by other courts applying Jones’ trespass analysis to an array of Fourth Amendment questions. Officers should consider taking an extra moment to knock on the window or door of a passed-out driver. Even one who is “gray and may be dead.”
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