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Coley v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

December 20, 2013


Woodward, Hotten, Rodowsky, Lawrence F. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.



Melissa Coley pled guilty in the Circuit Court for Caroline County to possession of a controlled dangerous substance and possession of drug paraphernalia.[1] She was sentenced to serve one year and one day in prison. On appeal, she challenges the court's denial of her motion to suppress evidence police discovered during a warrantless search of her vehicle. The State concedes error. We disagree with the State's conclusion, however, [2] and, for the following reasons, we shall affirm Coley's convictions.

Facts and Proceedings

On appeal of a court's decision not to suppress evidence, our review is confined to the record of the suppression hearing. See, e.g., Longshore v. State, 399 Md. 486, 498, 924 A.2d 1129, 1135 (2007). The record of that December 19, 2012 hearing reveals the following facts.

Deputy William Bodnar of the Caroline County Sheriff's Office testified that, on July 8, 2012, at about 7:00 p.m., he was dispatched to Walker's Grocery Store, located at 18230 Henderson Road in Marydel. He was assisted by Trooper Norton of the Maryland State Police.[3]

Over a several-day period occurring four or five days prior to July 8, Deputy Bodnar had been called to the store two or three times per day. Employees of the store had reported a white female who would arrive at the store in a black Ford vehicle and loiter in front of the store for short periods of time. While she was there, Hispanic males would enter the store, purchase condoms, and leave with the white female in her vehicle. Store employees believed that the female was engaging in prostitution. Deputy Bodnar had made contact and conversed with the female, whom he identified as Coley, multiple times over that several-day period. In one of those conversations, Coley "advised that she was a prior heroin user and she had been clean for approximately one year, close to a year." On July 7, Deputy Bodnar had served Coley with a cease and desist letter prohibiting her from loitering in front of Walker's Grocery Store. According to Deputy Bodnar, she also was served with cease and desist letters pertaining to State Line Gas and "basically all the businesses in Marydel."

When Deputy Bodnar arrived at Walker's Grocery Store on July 8, a store employee said that Coley had left within the previous fifteen minutes. The employee believed that Coley had gone to Walker's Trailer Park, the entrance to which was located 100 feet from the exit to the grocery store parking lot. Deputy Bodnar and Trooper Norton went to the trailer park and located Coley, alone, sitting in the driver's seat of a black Ford Focus, which was parked in front of Lot 30. The vehicle was not running. The driver's side door of the vehicle was open and Coley's feet were on the ground.

Deputy Bodnar observed an open beer can "in the cupholder of the center console of the vehicle." "On the center console, in front of the gearshifter knob, " he "observed torn, plastic Ziploc baggies, " one-inch in length, which he "believed to be drug paraphernalia, through [his] knowledge, training and experience." In Deputy Bodnar's view, the baggies appeared to have been "torn open." "They were, the pieces that you would press together were, mainly was laying in the console and they had been torn open. They weren't, so to speak, opened up[, ] and the contents of the package would have been dumped out. They were actually torn open." Deputy Bodnar testified that such torn plastic baggies are "used to package suspected heroin. The heroin's wrapped in wax paper and then the wax paper's folded into approximately like a, I'll say a half inch square and it's placed inside the one inch big Ziploc baggy."

Upon finding the plastic baggies, Deputy Bodnar detained Coley and placed her in handcuffs in front of her vehicle. He then searched Coley's purse and the interior of the vehicle. In Coley's purse, Deputy Bodnar found wax paper, a lighter, and Q-tips. In a "hidden compartment" in the vehicle, Deputy Bodnar found four syringes and Ziploc baggies containing suspected heroin wrapped in blue wax paper. The State introduced photographs of the interior of Coley's vehicle and of the items seized from Coley's vehicle.

After hearing argument, the suppression court summarized Deputy Bodnar's testimony and made oral findings of fact. The court did not believe the open beer can was "evidence of anything wrong." The court found otherwise with regard to the torn plastic baggies.

"[Deputy Bodnar] did at the same time observe two small plastic baggies and as he said they were about one inch by two inch, which is not the, obviously not a sandwich bag, but has a limited use. Further he noticed that these were not just plastic baggies, but that they had the, they were torn at one end, which to the officer in his training indicates a, something which has been used to contain controlled dangerous substance and in particular heroin. At that time, um, due to the observation of the drug paraphernalia, the officer believed he had probable cause to search the vehicle for related paraphernalia. Now paraphernalia can be in different forms, but when the plastic baggies are such that the corners have been torn off, it would be an indication that they were, had been specifically used to previously contain a controlled dangerous substance and therefore residue could be in place and that would be a charge of possession of a controlled dangerous substance, not just a fineable offense, but an incarcerable offense. He detained the, asked the Defendant to get out. He detained her and then he searched the vehicle and found other controlled dangerous substances and other paraphernalia. I find that there was a reasonable, um, for the officer to believe that there was a crime being committed in the possession of a controlled dangerous substance and the search of the vehicle without a warrant was not unreasonable. I'll therefore deny the Motion to Suppress. ... Quite simply on the issues of the prostitution, I don't agree with you, Mr. [Prosecutor]. ... When I say that, as to the right to search the vehicle, I don't think the vehicle was being searched for, there was not probable cause at that time for elements of prostitution to search the vehicle. The evidence that he found may be, may be admissible to show prostitution later on in her trial, so it was reasonably seized, but I don't think that was his reason for searching the vehicle."

After waiving a jury trial, Coley, on January 9, 2013, pled guilty on an agreed statement of facts, and was sentenced on February 25, 2013. She noted this timely appeal.


Our standard of review is well settled. "[W]e view the suppression court's findings of fact, and reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, in the light most favorable to the prevailing party on the motion below, in this case, the State. We do not disturb those findings unless clearly erroneous." McCracken v. State, 429 Md. 507, 515, 56 A.3d 242, 246 (2012) (citing Crosby v. State, 408 Md. 490, 504-05, 970 A.2d 894, 902 (2009)). "An appellate court, ... under an independent de novo review standard, must consider the application of the law to those facts in determining whether the evidence at issue was obtained in violation of the law, and, accordingly, should be suppressed." Longshore, 399 Md. at 499, 924 A.2d at 1136.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects." "The touchstone of our analysis under the Fourth Amendment is always 'the reasonableness in all the circumstances of the particular governmental invasion of a citizen's personal security.'" Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 108-09, 98 S.Ct. 330, 332 (1977) (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 1878-79 (1968)). Warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable, "subject only to a few specifically ...

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