Court Opinions: Colorado Court of Appeals Opinions for May 20

Colorado Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

May 20, 2021 Colorado Court of Appeals Opinions

People v. Alemayehu

The Colorado Court of Appeals considered what standard of evidence is needed to justify search and seizure without a warrant under the plain view exception to the Fourth Amendment.

Henoke Alemayehu was convicted for failing to report an accident and possession  of oxycodone. Alemayehu appealed the decision and argued, among other claims, that the arresting officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights that protect against unreasonable search and seizure. 

During his arrest, a sheriff’s deputy opened the driver’s side door to find the car’s registration and insurance and  saw three, unlabeled, pill bottles in a door compartment. After opening the pill bottle, the sheriff’s deputies identified the contents as oxycodone and arrested Alemayehu. While Alemayhu was questioned about the pills, the deputy Creighton searched the car’s glove box for the registration and insurance and found a labeled prescription bottle. Body camera footage shows the deputy picked up the bottle, examined the label and threw it back into the vehicle.  

Under the plain view exception, law enforcement officers do not need a warrant to search a container in plain sight as long as the police were in a lawful position when they saw the container, the incriminating nature of the container was immediately apparent and the officers had a lawful right of access to the container. The Supreme Court has interpreted “immediately apparent” in the language of the Plain View Exception to mean officers require probable cause. 

Alemayehu argued that the arresting deputies saw and took the container lawfully, but that the bottles were not “immediately apparent” as illegal or incriminating. 

The trial court found the officers had “reasonable suspicion” to keep investigating the unlabeled pills, but not “probable cause.” The Court of Appeals considered de novo if the arresting officers had probable cause to search Alemayehu’s pill bottles. 

After reviewing the officer’s testimony and the circumstances of Alemayehu’s arrest, the court determined that there was no probable cause and, by opening the pill bottle to investigate the contents, the arresting deputies violated Alemayehu’s rights.

Although unlabeled pill bottles are often used to store illegal pills, the Court of Appeals determined that simply possessing a bottle does not meet probable cause standards. The court also determined that by picking up and examining the labeled pill bottle found in the glove box, Deputy Creighton violated both the “vehicle paperwork” exception to the Fourth Amendment and the Plain View Exception. 

The court upheld the defendant’s conviction for failing to report an accident, but reversed his conviction for possession of a controlled substance and remanded the case for retrial. 

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