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STATE OF MONTANA v. NATHAN JENS FRANKFORTER
Case Number: 2020 MT 190N
Judge: James Jeremiah Shea
Court: IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF MONTANA
Plaintiff's Attorney: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Hannah E. Tokerud, Assistant
Attorney General, Helena, Montana
Leo Gallagher, Lewis and Clark County Attorney, Fallon Stanton,
Deputy County Attorney, Helena, Montana
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¶4 On February 27, 2017, the State charged Frankforter with Count I, Criminal
Possession of Dangerous Drugs, a felony, in violation of § 45-9-102(1), MCA; Count II,
Theft, a felony, in violation of § 45-6-301(1)(b), MCA; or alternatively, Count III, Theft,
a felony, in violation of § 45-6-301(3)(b), MCA. The charges stem from an incident
involving a reported stolen vehicle on the 2300 block of Boulder Avenue, in Helena,
Lewis and Clark County, Montana. The vehicle, a blue 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser, had
been reported stolen the evening of February 5, 2017. At approximately 12:16 a.m. on
February 6, 2017, law enforcement officers of the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office
and the Montana Highway Patrol responded to a dispatch call regarding the location of a
stolen vehicle. Frankforter was observed in the area and was stopped, searched, and
arrested pursuant to an active warrant.
¶5 On June 5, 2017, and again on August 13, 2018, Frankforter moved to suppress
evidence obtained pursuant to his arrest, and to dismiss the charges against him. The
District Court held hearings on the motions. Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Deputy
Haegle testified that he located the stolen vehicle parked near a residence in a neighborhood
surrounded by commercial property. Deputy Haegle also testified that he was familiar with
the area based on prior investigations of stolen vehicles and illegal drug activity. When
Deputy Haegle illuminated the vehicle using his patrol vehicle’s spotlight, he testified he
could see exhaust coming out the back of the vehicle, indicating the engine was left
running. Deputy Haegle confirmed that the vehicle’s license plate matched that of the
reported stolen vehicle. Deputy Haegle also testified that he observed no occupants in the
vehicle and no one near the vehicle.
¶6 Deputy Schmidt testified that he responded to the scene and parked his patrol car
east of the property where the stolen vehicle was located. While parked, Deputy Schmidt
observed two individuals walking north, away from the location of the stolen vehicle.
Deputy Schmidt estimated that the individuals were fifty feet away from the vehicle when
he spotted them. Deputy Schmidt also testified that he observed no other people in the area
and no businesses were open at that hour.
¶7 Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Uhl also testified. He stated that after he arrived
on scene, he received Deputy Schmidt’s radio transmission regarding the two individuals
walking away from the stolen vehicle’s location. Trooper Uhl drove around the area and
observed the two individuals walking north on Boulder Avenue between two trailer homes.
Trooper Uhl attempted to stop the individuals by yelling at them through his open window.
When the individuals continued walking, Trooper Uhl activated his overhead lights and
parked his patrol vehicle at the end of a driveway leading to one of the trailer homes.
Trooper Uhl exited his vehicle and observed only one of the individuals outside, identified
as Frankforter. Frankforter admitted he had the key to the stolen vehicle and that he had
driven the stolen vehicle. Frankforter was arrested pursuant to an active warrant and
booked at the Lewis and Clark County Detention Center. During booking, detention
officers located three small plastic baggies containing a white powdery residue that later
tested positive for methamphetamine.
¶8 The District Court denied Frankforter’s motions to suppress evidence and to dismiss
the charges against him. The case proceeded to jury trial on September 10, 2018.
Frankforter was found guilty of criminal drug possession under Count I, and not guilty of
felony theft under Count II. The jury was unable to reach a verdict as to the alternative
charge of felony theft under Count III. On November 26, 2018, Frankforter was sentenced
to the Montana State Prison for a five-year commitment.
¶9 Frankforter appeals his conviction, arguing that the District Court erred by denying
his motions to suppress and dismiss because no particularized suspicion existed that
Frankforter was engaged in wrongdoing. Specifically, Frankforter asserts his presence in
an area purportedly known for its high crime rate could not supply law enforcement with
particularized suspicion to stop him.
¶10 We review a district court’s order on a motion to suppress evidence for whether the
court’s findings of fact are clearly erroneous, and whether those findings were correctly
applied as a matter of law. State v. Bar-Jonah, 2004 MT 344, ¶ 38, 324 Mont. 278,
102 P.3d 1229. A finding of fact is clearly erroneous if it is unsupported by substantial
evidence, if the court misapprehended the effect of the evidence, or if our review of the
record leaves us with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.
City of Helena v. Brown, 2017 MT 248, ¶ 7, 389 Mont. 63, 403 P.3d 341.
¶11 A criminal defendant has the federal and state constitutional right to be free of
unreasonable governmental searches and seizures. Brown, ¶ 9 (citing U.S. Const.
amend. IV; Mont. Const. art. II, § 11). These constitutional protections extend to law
enforcement’s investigatory stop of an individual. See Brown, ¶ 9. “Before effectuating a
stop, a police officer must observe circumstances that create ‘a particularized suspicion
that the person or occupant of the vehicle has committed, is committing, or is about to
commit an offense.’” Brown, ¶ 9 (quoting § 46-5-401(1), MCA). Particularized suspicion
is “objective data and articulable facts from which an experienced officer can make certain
inferences” coupled with “a resulting suspicion that” the person to be stopped “is or has
been engaged in wrongdoing or was a witness to criminal activity.” Brown, ¶ 9. Whether
particularized suspicion exists is determined by evaluating the totality of the circumstances.
Brown, ¶ 10.
¶12 While Frankforter’s presence in a purported high crime area alone is insufficient to
supply law enforcement with particularized suspicion to stop him, see State v. Jarman,
1998 MT 277, ¶ 14, 291 Mont. 391, 967 P.2d 1099, this observation, combined with the
officers’ other observations, formed the basis for the stop. Trooper Uhl was informed by
Deputies Haegle and Schmidt that a reported stolen vehicle had been found unoccupied
with its engine running. Trooper Uhl observed Frankforter walking away from the scene
of the vehicle just after midnight. Frankforter was only approximately fifty feet from the
vehicle when he was first spotted. No other businesses in the area were open and no other
traffic in the area was observed. The totality of the circumstances justified Trooper Uhl’s
stop of Frankforter. The District Court did not err in denying Frankforter’s motions to
suppress evidence and dismiss Frankforter’s charges.
Outcome: We have determined to decide this case pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(c) of our
Internal Operating Rules, which provides for memorandum opinions. In the opinion of theCourt, the case presents a question controlled by settled law or by the clear application of applicable standards of review. Affirmed.