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Taylor v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

May 23, 2016

EFRAIN TAYLOR
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Argued 4/4/16

         Circuit Court for Dorchester County Case No. K13-014979

          Barbera, C.J. [*] Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald Watts Wilner, Alan M. (Retired, Specially Assigned) JJ.

          OPINION

          WILNER, J.

         Petitioner was convicted in the Circuit Court for Dorchester County of possession with intent to distribute cocaine and driving under the influence of alcohol. As a repeat drug offender, he was sentenced to a significant term in prison. His sole complaint in this appeal is that the search of his car following a traffic stop, which led to the discovery of the cocaine, was Constitutionally deficient. The trial court denied his motion to suppress the drugs and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the ensuing judgment of conviction.

         In reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, we defer to that court's findings of fact unless we determine them to be clearly erroneous, and, in making that determination, we view the evidence in a light most favorable to the party who prevailed on that issue, in this case the State. We review the trial court's conclusions of law, however, and its application of the law to the facts, without deference. Varriale v. State, 444 Md. 400, 410, 119 A.3d 824, 830 (2015), citing Hailes v. State, 442 Md. 488, 499, 113 A.3d 608, 614 (2015); also Holt v. State, 435 Md. 443, 457, 78 A.3d 415, 423 (2013). There were no material disputes regarding the relevant facts in this case. The issue is purely one of law – whether the officer's search of the car as an incident to appellant's arrest was permissible under the Supreme Court's holding in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 129 S.Ct. 1710, 173 L.Ed.2d 485 (2009) (hereafter Gant).

         Officer Chad Mothersell, of the Cambridge Police Department, stopped petitioner at about 1:00 in the morning after observing him speeding and failing to stop at a stop sign. Although at trial, petitioner claimed he had not been speeding, the validity of the stop is not at issue in this appeal. Officer Mothersell – the only witness at the suppression hearing – said that, when he approached the passenger side of the vehicle following the stop, he detected a minor odor of alcohol coming from petitioner's breath and person, even though petitioner was several feet away, in the driver's seat. Mothersell observed that petitioner's speech was slurred and hard to understand and that his eyes were bloodshot and glassy. When Mothersell asked for appellant's registration card, he was handed an insurance card. Petitioner said that he had been at the Point Break bar in Cambridge.

         Mothersell had petitioner exit the car so he could perform standard field sobriety tests, which appellant did not complete successfully. At that point, he was placed under arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol. Just then, a backup officer arrived. Mothersell placed petitioner in the rear seat of his squad car to advise him of his rights regarding whether to take a breath test and, while that was happening, the backup officer searched appellant's car and found the cocaine inside the front seat center armrest.

         Mothersell said that the sole purpose for the search was to locate any "other alcohol, open containers, anything pertaining to the DUI arrest." When asked, on cross examination, whether he had any reason to believe that there might be open containers in the car, he said that there was a "good possibility" – that he had "several DUI arrests where there's plenty of open containers left in the vehicle." On this evidence, defense counsel argued that, under Gant, the search was unlawful because there was no independent probable cause for such a search, which, he claimed, Gant requires. The court disagreed and, as noted, denied the motion to suppress.

         The starting point for analyzing the validity of a warrantless search is the underlying precept that "searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by a judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment – subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." Gant, supra, 556 U.S. at 338, 129 S.Ct. at 1716, 173 L.Ed.2d at 493, quoting from Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357, 88 S.Ct. 507, 514, 19 L.Ed.2d 576, 585 (1967). One of those exceptions is a search incident to a valid arrest, which "derives from interests in officer safety and evidence preservation that are typically implicated in arrest situations." Gant, 556 U.S. at 338, 129 S.Ct. at 1716, 173 L.Ed.2d at 493.

         Gant was intended to clarify the scope of that exception in the context of a motor vehicle search. Mr. Gant was arrested for driving on a suspended license. After he had been handcuffed and locked in a police car, officers searched Gant's car and found cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the back seat. The issue was whether such a search, under those circumstances, where it was virtually impossible for Gant to have accessed his car to retrieve either weapons or evidence, could be justified under the holdings in Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969) and New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed.2d 768 (1981), and the Court held that the search in that case could not be justified.

         In Chimel, the Court limited the scope of a warrantless search incident to an arrest to the arrestee's person and the area within his or her "immediate control" – the area "from within which he [or she] might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence." 395 U.S. at 763, 89 S.Ct. at 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d at 694. Belton exposed some ambiguity in what the limitation of "immediate control" meant in the context of vehicle passenger compartment searches. In Belton, an officer stopped a vehicle containing four occupants. While asking for the operator's driver's license, he smelled burnt marijuana and observed an envelope in the vehicle marked "Supergold, " a name he associated with marijuana. Concluding that he had probable cause to believe that the occupants had committed a drug offense, he ordered them out of the car, placed them under arrest, patted them down, and separated them from each other, but did not handcuff them. He then searched the car and found cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the back seat.

         The New York Court of Appeals held that, once the occupants were arrested, the car and its contents were safely in the exclusive control of the police and that the search therefore was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court granted certiorari because it found that lower courts throughout the country had been unable to agree on a workable definition of "the area within the immediate control of the arrestee" when that area might include the interior of an automobile. The Belton Court settled the issue – or thought that it had – by holding that, when an officer lawfully arrests the occupant of an automobile, the officer, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, may search the passenger compartment of the car and any containers therein. That conclusion was based on the assumption that "articles inside the relatively narrow compass of the passenger compartment of an automobile are in fact generally, even if not inevitably, within the area into which an arrestee might reach." Belton, 453 U.S. at 460, 101 S.Ct. at 2864, 69 L.Ed.2d at 774-75.

         Belton did not solve the problem. As the Court noted in Gant, Belton had "been widely understood to allow a vehicle search incident to the arrest of a recent occupant even if there is no possibility the arrestee could gain access to the vehicle at the time of the search." The Gant Court rejected that view which, it said, would "untether the rule from the justifications underlying the Chimel exception, " and held instead that the "Chimel rationale authorizes police to search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within ...


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