Cite as State of Yap v. Ranganbay,
(Yap St. 1997)
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Crim. Case No. 1996-262


     On June 24, 1997, Defendant filed his' Motion to Suppress Physical Evidence. Plaintiff State filed its response on July 4, 1997. Three items of physical evidence were targeted for suppression by Defendant: a pair of handcuffs, a knife, and a marijuana plant. Before the hearing began, the parties informed the court that they have stipulated as to the hand-cuffs and knife. The court expects that the substance of that stipulation will be submitted to the court. Consequently, the focus of the hearing was on the exclusion of the marijuana as evidence against Defendant.

     The motion was heard on August 21 and 22, 1997. Chief Justice Constantine Yinug issued his ruling from the bench denying Defendant's motion. This Memorandum of Decision explains that ruling.

Memorandum of Decision
Factual Background:
      On the morning of September 14,1996, police officers proceeded, without a search warrant, to Defendant Peter Ranganbay's house in Worwo, Rull seeking to arrest Defendant Who was suspected of attacking a victim named Turad with a knife the previous evening.  Upon reaching the area where Defendant's house is located, the officers called out for Defendant. Francis Falan, who is Defendant's neighbor and uncle, approached the officers. Upon learning that the officers were searching for
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Defendant, Falan authorized the officers to enter Defendant's house. The officers declined and Falan himself enter the house. Defendant was not in his house. Falan then told the search for Defendant around the house and immediate area.  One of the officers, Jensen Ruw, went to the back of the house. There, officer Ruw discovered a marijuana plant located about twenty feet from the house. The marijuana plant was seized by the officers and brought back to the station. Defendant was not located at his house or immediate area that day.
     Defendant petitioned the court to find that the marijuana plant was illegally seized because the officers had no right to be where they were when they discovered the marijuana plant. Plaintiff State responded that the seizure was proper under the plain view doctrine.

     The Yap State Constitution provides for a fundamental right of the "people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search, seizure or invasion of property ...." Yap Const. art. II sec. 3. The language of the Constitution does not prohibit all kinds of searches. Rather, the Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches by government officials. Therefore, the analysis of the facts of this case turns on whether the actions by police which led to the seizure of the marijuana were reasonable.

     A threshold issue is whether the police officers were entitled to enter the house compound where Defendant lives.

     The police officers went to Defendant's house to arrest him on an information that Defendant had stabbed his brother the previous evening. It is the responsibility of the police to conduct these types of investigation. With information that Defendant had committed a serious offense and that he may be a threat to his relatives and the community, it is standard police procedure to proceed to the dwelling place of the accused in search of the accused. When the officers arrived at Defendant's house, they called out to Defendant. Defendant's uncle who lives next door came over. Defendant's uncle entered Defendant's house and told the officers
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that Defendant was not inside the house.  The uncle then told the officers that they may search around the area for Defendant.

     At the hearing, Defendant's uncle testified that by inheritance he owns the parcel of land which his own house and that of Defendant's are located.  Under Yapese custom and tradition, the uncle has the authority to allow police onto the property.  As owner of the whole property, it is reasonable and permissible for the uncle to authorize police to enter onto the property and to look around outside Defendant's house which is situated on the property. The court views this type of intrusion as one of a lesser order requiring a lower degree of scrutiny than one where police may have been given permission by the uncle to enter Defendant's house.

     In the instant case, the court recognizes that the uncle, as owner of the land which his own house and Defendant's house are located, possesses authority to grant the officers permission to enter and to look for Defendant on the property.
     The next issue is whether the activities and movements of the officers while on Defendant's house compound were reasonable.

     Plaintiff State pointed out that this case involved no search for marijuana. The officers were proceeding to Defendant's dwelling place with the intent to arrest Defendant and obtain a knife. The spotting and seizure of the marijuana at issue was inadvertent.

     The marijuana plant which was discovered by Officer Ruw was growing some twenty feet from the back of the house. Defendant argued that the police have no right to be at the back of his house. Plaintiff State countered that the officer who discovered the marijuana plant had a right to be at the back of the house and the plant was in plain view. At the hearing, police testified that they were not searching for marijuana plants. Rather, they were looking for Defendant who was believed to have attacked his brother with a knife.

     A similar scenario was presented in FSM v. Mark , 1 FSM Intrm. 285 (Pon. 1983). In that FSM Supreme Court case, police officers went to
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Defendant's resident in search for a juvenile and while they waited at the back of the house for someone who went to call over the juvenile, the officers spotted marijuana plants a short distance away.  FSM v. Mark, 1 FSM Intrm. 285 (Pon. 1983). The Court in Mark ruled that as long as the movement of the officers on the private property is reasonable, the marijuana which was in plain view of an officer who had a right to be where he was may be seized and a warrant for the seizure is not necessary.  Id. at 293.

     In the instant case, the officers did not wander off the compound grounds The search for Defendant and the weapon was limited to the area authorized by Defendant's uncle. The officers were not rummaging around indoors; they were looking around outside defendant's house. The back of Defendant's house is part of the immediate area which Defendant's uncle authorized to be searched. Officer Ruw's presence at the back of Defendant's house was reasonable given that the officers were seeking to arrest Defendant and retrieve the weapon used in the crime committed the previous evening. Furthermore, Officer Ruw's discovery of the marijuana was not the result of an extensive and expanded search of the area. The marijuana was in plain view from the back of the house. Plaintiff State explained and the court agrees that the movement by police on the compound premises that morning of September 14th was standard police procedure under the circumstances of which type the Court in Mark has found reasonable.

     The last issue was whether police, upon discovering the marijuana plant, were entitled to seize the marijuana and bring it to the station as evidence against Defendant.

     It is established that the police officers received permission from Defendant's uncle to look around Defendant`s house compound that morning. Officer Ruw's presence at the back of Defendant's house is reasonable and standard police investigative procedure under the circumstances. Officer Ruw was entitled to be at the location where he came into view of the marijuana which was not in any enclosed structure. Officer Ruw's seizure of the marijuana did no more to intensify the intrusion on Defendant's privacy. Therefore, it is permissible for Officer
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Ruw and the other officers to take possession of the marijuana and bring it back to the station to be used as evidence against Defendant.

     Based on foregoing, the court, finds that police officers had valid permission on September 14, 1996 to enter the property which Defendant's house is located and the conduct of the officers at Defendant's house compound was reasonable and not in violation of Defendant's Constitutional rights. The marijuana seized by the officers may be used as evidence against Defendant. Therefore, Defendant's motion to suppress is denied.

Chief justice Constantine Yinug

Received and filed this 12th day of September; 1997.

Clerk of Court
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