In a recent case in Minnesota, an issue arose as to whether a response to a burglar alarm justified a search and seizure. Law enforcement officers were dispatched to a private business based on the activation of a warehouse burglar alarm. The first to arrive was a Minnesota State Trooper. He drove onto the driveway leading to a parking lot until he arrived at the front of the warehouse.

A video recording from the dash camera showed the warehouse as the trooper drove into the parking lot where he observed the following: the warehouse building had no inside or outside lights on; the warehouse garage door was open; the warehouse burglar alarm was activated; an SUV was parked in front of the open garage door; the engine of the SUV was running with the rear door open; a man was walking out of the open warehouse garage door.

The man, the defendant in the case, was arrested and charged with three misdemeanor counts of driving while impaired. The defendant moved to dismiss charges as a result of unlawful investigatory seizure. The district court denied the defendant’s motion and found him guilty. The defendant appealed.

“As a general rule, a law enforcement officer may temporarily detain a person for investigatory purposes if the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person has engaged in criminal activity.”

The dash cam recording shows a man walking empty-handed from the open garage door toward the SUV. There are no visible broken windows and as the warehouse was illuminated, the officer said that “there’s a vehicle here . . . a worker maybe.”

The defendant later identified himself and raised his hands as he saw the patrol car approach. The officer got out of the vehicle and the men walked toward each other. The officer greeted the defendant and asked, “Do you work here?” The defendant confirmed that he worked there and explained he had set off the alarm, there was no broken glass, and that he knew how to turn off the alarm.

During the encounter, as the defendant spoke, the officer said he “could smell an odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from him” and observed bloodshot and watery eyes. The defendant admitted to consuming alcohol before driving and submitted to field sobriety tests, but refused to submit to a preliminary breath test. The officer placed the defendant under arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol and transported him to the county jail.

At the trial, the defendant argued the officer did not have a reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity when they conducted an investigatory seizure. The court was not convinced and concluded the totality of the circumstances supported the investigatory seizure.

On appeal, the court pointed out that the United States and Minnesota constitutions guarantee the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

As a general rule, a law enforcement officer may temporarily detain a person for investigatory purposes if the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person has engaged in criminal activity. For an investigatory seizure to be supported by reasonable suspicion, there must be “specific, articulable facts” showing that the officer “had a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the seized person of criminal activity. The standard for reasonable suspicion is not high, but it requires more than “an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch.” Wholly lawful conduct might justify the suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.

The defendant argued that the officer lacked a sufficient basis to conduct an investigatory seizure because: 1. The officer did not personally see any broken windows as he drove to the front of the warehouse; 2. the officer thought the defendant might be an employee of the business; and 3. the defendant was not carrying any items as he walked toward the SUV.

The court pointed out that the officer was dispatched to the warehouse to investigate the burglar alarm that was triggered after dark and after normal business hours. Prior to activating the emergency lights on his patrol car, the officer was able to see that the warehouse garage door was open, and a man was walking out of the warehouse toward a parked SUV.

The officer testified that he also observed two large items on the ground behind the SUV, the rear door of the SUV was open and the engine of the SUV was running. After careful review of the record, the court concluded the officer had a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot at the time that he activated his emergency lights and initiated the investigatory seizure. The court affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motions to dismiss.