The Alaska Court of Appeals overturned an Anchorage man’s drug conviction on Friday, issuing a ruling that appears to strengthen gun owners’ Fourth Amendment protection from police searches.
In their opinion on Cardenas v. Alaska, judges David Mannheimer, Marjorie Allard and John Suddock said police officers must have probable cause to believe that someone’s possession of a gun is illegal before searching their gun case without a warrant.
“I think it could have fairly broad applicability,” said Tim Terrell, the attorney who prosecuted the case for the state Office of Criminal Appeals.
Friday’s decision comes from an incident in Anchorage involving a man named Jesus Alberto Cardenas. Cardenas was stopped by an Anchorage Police Department officer for reckless driving, and the officer asked Cardenas whether he had any firearms in the car. Cardenas said he did, and he gestured to a soft-sided rifle case in his back seat.
The officer, working alone and nervous about his own safety, took the case from the car while he processed Cardenas’ registration and information through the state’s criminal database.
While that was legal, what came next was not, the judges said. The officer opened the case, searched it, and found (in addition to a rifle) “an Airsoft pellet gun, a wad of cash, a box of plastic baggies, and several plastic bags with a white powdery substance that was later determined to be cocaine.”
The officer called for backup and Cardenas was arrested. In the subsequent trial, he was represented by Anchorage attorney Jane Martinez, who argued that the search was illegal, because officers did not have a warrant and there was no danger to the officer.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Spaan disagreed and convicted him of drugs misconduct and weapons misconduct.
Cardenas and Martinez appealed to the appeals court, which sided with the defendant.
State prosecutors had argued that the search was legal under a 1979 exemption to the Fourth Amendment that allows searches if “their very nature cannot support a reasonable expectation of privacy because their contents can be inferred from their outward appearance.”
Under the state’s interpretation, police would always be entitled to open a rifle case if it was identifiable as a rifle case.
“This is a misinterpretation of the ‘single-purpose’ exemption,” the appeals court decided.
That exemption applies only if police have reason to believe that possession of a particular item is illegal. “Here, there was nothing obviously unlawful about Cardenas’ possession of a rifle,” the court wrote.
Alaska law has few restrictions on firearm ownership: No permits are required for possession of most firearms, and state law allows firearms to be carried and stored in vehicles.
It was also inappropriate for police to open the case because the weapon inside did not pose a danger to the officer.
“Moreover, these gun safety concerns (to the extent they existed) could have been addressed by securing the rifle case in the trunk of the car or by requesting Cardenas to step out of the car. This was not a situation where the officer had to secure a gun that had been discarded or that otherwise posed a threat to public safety,” the court wrote.
Terrell said by email that it appears the judges are requiring police to take the least-privacy-invasive way of dealing with officer safety concerns.
Asked whether the state will appeal the decision to the Alaska Supreme Court, Terrell said it isn’t his call to make.
“We haven’t decided whether to seek further review of it,” he said.
In a related note, Terrell is one of three attorneys who were named Thursday as finalists to replace Mannheimer on the court of appeals.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at email@example.com or 523-2258.