Court for Dorchester County Case No. K13-014979
Barbera, C.J. [*] Battaglia Greene Adkins McDonald
Watts Wilner, Alan M. (Retired, Specially Assigned) JJ.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ...