Judge – Deputies’ meth search was illegal
Moceika’s felony charge, trial dismissed
SUBLETTE COUNTY – Challenging two deputies’ search of a man’s trailer led to the judge suppressing evidence of their warrantless search and the prosecution dropping one felony drug charge against the man.
After viewing one deputy’s body-cam video and hearing testimony on March 23 from both officers involved – Sublette County deputies Danielle Cooper and Krystal Mansur – 9th District Court Judge Kate McKay ruled on April 12 their search of a Marbleton trailer was unconstitutional.
On Feb. 20, 2022, the patrolling deputies knew Tanner C. Moceika, also of LaBarge, stayed at the trailer and saw the nearly closed door. After knocking and entering, they found meth and smoking paraphernalia inside, records show.
They then requested a search warrant, claiming the evidence had been visible in “plain view” and that they also entered with imminent concerns of a burglary or overdose, according to court records.
Public defender Rachel Weksler filed the motion on Moceika’s behalf and at the March 23 hearing, challenged Sublette County Deputy Attorney Adrian Kowalski’s arguments that the deputies’ search was constitutional.
“(Moceika) challenges the warrantless search of the trailer home, asserting that its has violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 4 of the Wyoming Constitution,” Judge McKay wrote. “He further asserts that the evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search is subject to the exclusionary rule.
“(Kowalski) responded that the search fell under two exceptions to the warrant requirement: 1) plain view, and 2) emergency assistance, and that therefore evidence derived from this search is admissible against (Moceika).”
The state was “unable to meet its burden” to defend either scenario, the judge ruled.
On April 13, Kowalski moved to dismiss Moceika’s felony meth possession charge and vacate the defendant’s upcoming District Court pretrial conference and July 17 jury trial.
Judge McKay dismissed the charge and vacated Moceika’s court proceedings.
In her order, Judge McKay related that on Feb. 20, 2020, Mansur and Cooper were both on patrol in separate vehicles. Seeing a slightly open door, they stopped at Moceika’s trailer and went to the door.
“The sole piece of evidence ultimately admitted at the (March 23 suppression) hearing was the recording of footage from a body camera worn by Deputy Mansur,” she said.
Watching, the judge noted the trailer door in question was “slightly open” when Cooper stepped up to knock.
“Immediately after knocking, Deputy Cooper pushes the door open further,” the judge wrote. “At this time prior to pushing the door open, it was not possible to see into the residence, which was dark.”
Deputy Mansur announced “sheriff’s office” and once the door is pushed open, the two can see into the dark home to find “disarray” and a cup with ice, the judge related.
After waiting outside for about a minute, the two deputies stepped in with drawn guns and paused for a minute and a half, “inspecting the table” with visible drug paraphernalia, then walked through and find no one inside. When they leave, they couldn’t close the door due to its damaged frame, the judge noted.
“Nothing incriminating was visible prior to opening the door,” Judge McKay wrote. “Entry occurred the moment that Deputy Cooper physically changed the state of the door. She crossed the threshold of the doorway by that act.”
To enter legally without a warrant, the judge said, “The government must show that the officer had a reasonable and articulable belief that immediate aid or assistance was required to prevent harm to persons or property.”
Kowalski cited a Louisiana case “to support the proposition that the deputies were allowed to push the door open further to get a better understanding of the situation,” the judge wrote.
“This is not the law in Wyoming, nor is it persuasive under these circumstances.”
Judge McKay noted circumstances from the video did not lead to “obvious conclusions” and “what-ifs” of a squatter, burglar or injured person inside were “not guided by articulable facts.”
“While it is admirable that officers have these concerns and are mindful of their community caretaking responsibilities, it is simply not the standard that such general concerns amount to a reasonable articulable belief that suffices to override Fourth Amendment protections,” Judge McKay wrote.
No evidence showed Cooper and Mansur believed “immediate assistance” was required – and “because the officers were not justified in opening the door to the residence, the first prong of the plain view analysis fails,” the judge wrote.
“Nothing that was observed after further opening the door was actually in ‘plain view’ to the officers, as they were not lawfully in the place from which incriminating evidence was viewed,” Judge McKay wrote. “Therefore, the court finds that all evidence obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the trailer house as to this defendant (Moceika) must be suppressed.”