State v. Ballinger

State v. Ballinger, 2016 MT 300 (Feb. 9, 2016) (Shea, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: Whether the district court erred in finding the police officer had particularized suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop of Ballinger.

Short Answer: No.


Facts: A neighbor called police one night to report the front door of a house across the street was open. Officer Morrison arrived and found the front door open, the lights on, and no one around. He parked his vehicle and waited. He then saw a man and woman, later identified as Ballinger and Julie Ramirez, get out of a car and walk toward the open house. He got out and spoke to them, explaining why he was there and asking where they were going. He was suspicious of them and suspected they were lying to him.

Officer Morrison then asked Ballinger for identification. He ran a warrant check on Ballinger and found a probation violation warrant. While patting Ballinger down, the officer felt numerous unknown items in Ballinger’s pockets, but retrieved none because they didn’t feel like weapons. He arrested Ballinger and another officer transported Ballinger to the jail. After Ballinger got out of the patrol car, the officer found a small bag of methamphetamine. The bag was not there when the officer began his shift, and no on else had been in the back seat of the patrol car. Ballinger was charged with criminal possession of dangerous drugs, a felony.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Ballenger moved to suppress evidence of the drugs, arguing Officer Morrison lacked particularized suspicion to conduct a stop of Ballinger and Ramirez, and to dismiss. After a hearing, the district court denied the motions. Ballinger was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, and designated a persistent felony offender. Ballinger appeals and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: Implicit in the district court’s analysis is a finding that Ballinger was not seized until Officer Morrison asked for Ballinger’s identification. Until then, the officer made no show of force or authority. Before asking for Ballinger’s identification, Officer Morrison had articulable facts from which he could reasonably infer that Ballinger was involved in criminal activity. He therefore had particularized suspicion that justified an investigatory stop.