April 4, 2016.
Circuit Court for Dorchester County. Case No. K13-014979.
Petitioner: Daniel Kobrin, Assistant Public Defender, Claire
Caplan, Assistant Public Defender, Paul B. DeWolfe, Public
Defender of Maryland, Baltimore, MD.
Respondent: Benjamin A. Harris, Assistant Attorney General,
Brian E. Frosh, Attorney General of Maryland, Baltimore, MD.
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.
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.
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, ...