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Smith v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

September 10, 2013

MARLON SMITH
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

Eyler, Deborah S., Berger, Raker, Irma S. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Raker, J.

Marlon Smith, appellant, was convicted in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City of possession of a regulated firearm after being convicted of a disqualifying crime, wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun and wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun in a vehicle. Appellant presents one issue for our review: whether the court erroneously denied his motion to suppress evidence recovered from the search of a vehicle pursuant to a traffic stop. We shall affirm.

I.

Appellant was indicted by the Grand Jury for the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, with possession of a regulated firearm after being convicted of a disqualifying crime, wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun, and wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun in a vehicle. Before that court, appellant moved pre-trial to suppress a firearm that was recovered from a vehicle in which he was a passenger, [1] arguing that police conducted an unlawful traffic stop without reasonable articulable suspicion or probable cause. The following evidence was presented at the motions hearing.

On November 30, 2011, Detective Kenneth Ramberg observed appellant walking along the 1600 to 1700 block of Darley Avenue. After a few minutes of watching appellant engage in non-criminal behavior, Detective Ramberg saw appellant get into the passenger seat of a vehicle. As the car drove away, the Detective noticed that the vehicle's "rear deck [brake] light" did not illuminate upon application of the brakes. The vehicle's other two rear brake lights were functioning properly. Consequently, Detective Ramberg initiated a traffic stop "[t]o inform the [driver] that the light was out, and to issue a safety equipment repair order." Appellant was seated in the passenger seat.

Once he approached the car, Detective Ramberg smelled an odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the vehicle. Officers asked appellant and the driver to exit the vehicle. With both of the occupants out of the car and seated on the curb, Detective Ramberg went to close the passenger door. At that point, he saw a handgun lying in open view on the passenger floorboard. The officers arrested appellant and the driver. Although neither individual initially claimed ownership of the handgun, appellant conceded later that the handgun did not belong to the driver.

Appellant moved to suppress the handgun recovered from the search of the vehicle. He argued that the traffic stop was unlawful because it was not supported by reasonable articulable suspicion or probable cause. Appellant maintained that a malfunctioning rear deck brake light is not a violation of the Transportation Article of the Maryland Code so long as the vehicle has at least two functioning rear brake lights.[2] The court denied the motion, determining that the Transportation Article entitles a police officer to stop a vehicle and issue a equipment repair order if any brake light is inoperable.

The case proceeded to trial before a jury in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. The jury convicted appellant of possession of a firearm after being convicted of a disqualifying crime, wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun, and wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun in a vehicle. The court sentenced appellant to a term of incarceration of five years for possession of a regulated firearm, three years for wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun, and three years for wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun in a vehicle. This timely appeal followed.

II.

Before this Court, appellant argues that the trial court erroneously denied his motion to suppress the handgun because it was recovered pursuant to an unlawful traffic stop. Specifically, appellant argues that driving a vehicle with a malfunctioning brake light is not a violation of the Transportation Article of the Maryland Code so long as at least two brake lights are functioning properly. As such, appellant argues, Detective Ramberg initiated a traffic stop based on no violation of the law, which, in Maryland, cannot support a detention for a traffic violation even if the officer acted reasonably in believing that a violation had occurred.

The State maintains that the court properly denied appellant's motion to suppress. The State contends that Detective Ramberg initiated a lawful traffic stop to issue an equipment repair order for a malfunctioning brake light. The State disagrees with appellant's interpretation of the Transportation Article and maintains that police may initiate a traffic stop to issue a repair order for any malfunctioning brake light. Thus, the State argues that the traffic stop was predicated on an actual violation of the Maryland Vehicle Laws.

III.

Appellant's only contention on appeal is that the court erroneously denied his motion to suppress the handgun recovered from a search of the vehicle. When reviewing a ruling on a motion to suppress evidence, this Court ordinarily considers only the evidence in the suppression hearing record. See Herring v. State, 198 Md.App. 60, 67-68, 16 A.3d 246, 249-50 (2011). We defer to the hearing court's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous and review the facts in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, here, the State. Id. at 71-72, 16 A.3d at 253. Ultimately, however, this Court determines ...


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