Lake Andes man's burglary, grand theft convictions upheld by SD Supreme Court
PIERRE — A conviction stemming from a 2016 burglary and grand theft case in Charles Mix County has been upheld by the South Dakota Supreme Court, the court ruled last week.
Trevor Zephier, of Lake Andes, appealed his 2017 conviction for first-degree burglary and grand theft after being found guilty during a jury trial in Lake Andes.
The court had narrowed the questions from Zephier down to two issues: whether the circuit court erred when it denied Zephier’s motion to suppress gun evidence at trial and whether the court abused its discretion when it denied his motion for expert analysis of fingerprint analysis on the guns.
During the burglary investigation, officers found 16 guns, some of which had matched descriptions of guns stolen in 2010 from a home near Lake Andes. Nine of the guns were recovered from the backseat of Zephier’s car and another seven guns were discovered in the trunk.
Charles Mix County Chief Deputy Derik Rolston and another deputy photographed the guns, brought them back to the sheriff’s office to inventory them and eventually return them to the original owner. At trial, Rolston testified that the guns were returned to the original owner after checking with the state’s attorney. A second individual charged in the case, Daniel Cranmer, had testified that Zephier had helped take “several armfuls” of guns from the owner’s house and load them into Zephier’s car.
At trial, Zephier moved to suppress evidence related to the guns, asserting that state prosecutors would be unable to establish a proper chain of custody based on its decision to immediately return the stolen guns to the original owner. Instead, Zephier sought forensic testing of the guns to confirm what he claimed would be the absence of his fingerprints, the court wrote.
The circuit court denied that motion in part, because it reasoned that circumstances “made it unforeseeable that the Defendant would later claim to have never seen or touched any of the firearms.”
The opinion, written by Justice Mark Salter, wrote that the court did not err in its judgement to deny Zephier’s motion to exclude the evidence associated with the stolen guns, even if law enforcement and the prosecutor did not meet the standards for preserving evidence. At most, he wrote, the guns were “potentially useful” to Zephier’s defense, but Zephier’s argument that his due process was violated was unsustainable because he had not established that prosecutors or law enforcement acted in bad faith.
“In this way, the state failed to preserve Zephier’s right to examine the guns for the presence or absence of forensic evidence,” Salter wrote. “Although the guns were not, themselves, destroyed or lost, the evidence Zephier sought — the absence of his fingerprints — was likely compromised to such an extent it was effectively lost.”
South Dakota state law requires law enforcement to notify the defendant before releasing evidence back to the original owner.
“Although law enforcement officers did not comply with statutory standards for preserving seized evidence when they prematurely returned the guns to Soulek, Zephier has not demonstrated that the evidence was material or that officers acted in bad faith,” Salter wrote. “In addition, the court acted within its discretion when it denied Zephier’s request for fingerprint testing. The request lacked sufficient factual support, and the analysis was unnecessary to his defense.”
The court’s other four justices concurred with Salter’s opinion.
Zephier was sentenced to 25 years in the state penitentiary with 15 years suspended for the burglary conviction and 10 years in the penitentiary with five years suspended for the grand theft conviction. The sentences were ordered to be served concurrently with credit for time served.