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Robinson v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

January 20, 2017

JERMAUL RONDELL ROBINSON
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND DEXTER WILLIAMS
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND VERNON HARVEY SPRIGGS, III
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Argued: December 1, 2016

         Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case Nos. 815049029, 815147025.

         Circuit Court for Dorchester County Case No. 09-K-14-015452

          Barbera, C.J.Greene Adkins, McDonald, Watts Hotten Getty, JJ.

          OPINION

          WATTS, J.

         In 2014, Maryland joined a number of other jurisdictions that have decriminalized, but not legalized, possession of small amounts of marijuana-that is, under the law of these jurisdictions, possession of a small amount of marijuana remains illegal, but is punishable by a fine, not by incarceration.[1] Before October 1, 2014, under Maryland law, possession of less than ten grams of marijuana was a misdemeanor that carried a maximum penalty of ninety days of incarceration and a fine of $500. See 2014 Md. Laws. 1119 (Vol. II, Ch. 158, S.B. 364); Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law (2002, 2012 Repl. Vol., 2013 Supp.) § 5-601(c)(2)(ii). As of October 1, 2014, under Maryland law, possession of less than ten grams of marijuana became "a civil offense"[2] that is punishable by participation in a drug education program, an assessment for substance abuse disorder, possible substance abuse treatment, and a fine, the amount of which depends on whether the violation is a first, second, or subsequent violation of the statute. See 2014 Md. Laws. 1119, 1124 (Vol. II, Ch. 158, S.B. 364); Md. Code Ann., Crim. Law (2002, 2012 Repl. Vol., 2014 Supp.) § 5-601(c)(2).

         Here, Jermaul Rondell Robinson ("Robinson"), Dexter Williams ("Williams"), and Vernon Harvey Spriggs, III ("Spriggs") (together, "Petitioners") contend that, due to the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana, a law enforcement officer no longer has probable cause to search a vehicle where the law enforcement officer detects an odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle. In separate cases, each Petitioner moved to suppress evidence that had been found in a vehicle that he had been driving or had possession of. In each case, at a hearing on the motion to suppress, a law enforcement officer testified that either a strong odor or an overwhelming odor of fresh marijuana was emanating from the car that the Petitioner had been using. In each case, the circuit court denied the motion to suppress, and each Petitioner was convicted of possession of at least ten grams of marijuana under the amended statute. Petitioners appealed, and, in each case, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the circuit court's judgment in an unreported opinion. Petitioners separately filed petitions for writs of certiorari, which this Court granted. We heard one oral argument as to Petitioners' cases on the same day, and this opinion serves to consolidate the cases.

         Petitioners raise an important matter of first impression: whether, in light of the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana, a law enforcement officer has probable cause to search a vehicle upon detecting an odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle. In a reported opinion in an earlier case-Bowling v. State, 227 Md.App. 460, 476, 134 A.3d 388, 398, cert. denied, 448 Md. 724, 141 A.3d 135 (2016)-the Court of Special Appeals held that the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana did not undermine the principle that the alert of a narcotics dog, that is certified to detect marijuana along with other controlled dangerous substances, constitutes probable cause to search a vehicle. In each of Petitioners' cases, the Court of Special Appeals applied Bowling and concluded that a law enforcement officer's detection of a strong odor of marijuana coming from a vehicle that the defendant possessed provides probable cause to search the vehicle, despite the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana, because marijuana in any amount remains contraband-i.e., goods that are illegal, but not necessarily criminal, to possess. In addition to the holding of the Court of Special Appeals in Bowling, courts in Maine, Oregon, California, Minnesota and Colorado have reached similar conclusions, namely, that where an officer detects the odor of marijuana coming from a vehicle, the warrantless search of the vehicle is permitted, even though these jurisdictions had decriminalized-and, in at least one instance, legalized-the possession of a small quantity of marijuana. See State v. Barclay, 398 A.2d 794 (Me. 1979); State v. Smalley, 225 P.3d 844 (Or. App. 2010); People v. Waxler, 224 Cal.App.4th 712 (2014), as modified on denial of reh'g (Apr. 3, 2014), review denied (June 11, 2014); State v. Ortega, 749 N.W.2d 851 (Minn.Ct.App. 2008), aff'd, 770 N.W.2d 145 (Minn. 2009); People v. Zuniga, 372 P.3d 1052 (Colo. 2016).

         Upon careful consideration, in agreement with the conclusions of the Court of Special Appeals and the appellate courts of other jurisdictions, we hold that a law enforcement officer has probable cause to search a vehicle where the law enforcement officer detects an odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle, as marijuana in any amount remains contraband, notwithstanding the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana; and the odor of marijuana gives rise to probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime. Simply put, decriminalization is not synonymous with legalization, and possession of marijuana remains unlawful.

         BACKGROUND

         No. 37: Robinson v. State

         On October 19, 2014, in the District Court of Maryland, sitting in Baltimore City, the State, Respondent, charged Robinson with possession of oxycodone, possession of at least ten grams of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia. The case was transferred to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. In the circuit court, Robinson filed "Omnibus Pre-Trial Defense Motions, " which included, among other things, a motion to suppress all evidence that law enforcement had allegedly illegally seized from Robinson's vehicle.

         On March 16, 2015, the circuit court conducted a hearing on the motion to suppress. The only witness at the hearing was Officer Steven A. Vinias of the Baltimore Police Department. As a witness for the State, Officer Vinias testified that he was familiar with the odor of marijuana, and was able to distinguish the odor of fresh marijuana from the odor of burnt marijuana. On October 18, 2014, Officer Vinias was driving in the 3100 block of Oakfield Avenue in Baltimore. Sergeant Luis Ruiz was a passenger in the law enforcement vehicle. Officer Vinias saw Robinson leaning against a Nissan Maxima, which was the only vehicle on that side of Oakfield Avenue. Officer Vinias noticed an overwhelming smell of fresh marijuana. Officer Vinias stopped, and he and Sergeant Ruiz exited and approached Robinson, who was within arm's length of the Nissan at the time. Robinson made a movement toward his waistband, and Sergeant Ruiz detained Robinson. Once Robinson was detained, Officer Vinias could tell that the smell of marijuana was coming from the Nissan. In response to questions by Officer Vinias, Robinson said that he had been driving the Nissan, and that there was marijuana in the Nissan. Officer Vinias searched the Nissan and seized sixteen small bags of marijuana and one oxycodone pill. At the time of the seizure, Officer Vinias estimated that the marijuana weighed more than ten grams. On cross-examination, Officer Vinias stated that the strength of the odor of marijuana and the amount of marijuana are not always synonymous.

         After Officer Vinias's testimony, the circuit court heard argument from the parties. Robinson's counsel contended that a law enforcement officer lacks probable cause to search a vehicle for marijuana unless the law enforcement officer has reasonable suspicion that the vehicle contains more than ten grams of marijuana. The State argued that nothing had changed as a result of the amendment to the marijuana statute with respect to a law enforcement officer's ability to search a vehicle based on the odor of marijuana. After hearing the parties' arguments, the circuit court denied the motion to suppress without making any findings of fact.

         The parties agreed that Robinson would be tried on an agreed statement of facts only as to the charge of possession of at least ten grams of marijuana. Robinson's counsel engaged in a waiver colloquy with Robinson, who waived the right to a trial. The prosecutor read a statement of facts, to which Robinson's counsel agreed. The circuit court found Robinson guilty of possession of at least ten grams of marijuana and sentenced him to time served. The docket entries reflect that the other two charges, possession of oxycodone and possession of drug paraphernalia, were closed.

         On March 26, 2015, Robinson noted an appeal. In an unreported opinion dated April 29, 2016, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the circuit court's judgment, holding that, despite the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana, marijuana remains contraband, and its odor provides probable cause to search a vehicle.

         On June 14, 2016, Robinson petitioned for a writ of certiorari, raising the following two issues:

1. When an officer detects an "overwhelming smell" of "fresh marijuana" coming from a car, does he have probable cause to search the car in light of the fact that possession of a less than ten grams of marijuana is now a "civil offense" punishable only by a fine?
2. Did the trial court err when it denied [] Robinson's motion to suppress?

         On August 19, 2016, this Court granted the petition. See Robinson v. State, 449 Md. 410, 144 A.3d 705 (2016).

         No. 39: Williams v. State

         On April 8, 2015, in the District Court of Maryland, sitting in Baltimore City, the State charged Williams with possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. The case was transferred to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. In the circuit court, Williams filed "Omnibus Pre-Trial Defense Motions, " which included, among other things, a motion to suppress all evidence that law enforcement had allegedly illegally seized from Williams's vehicle.

         On June 25, 2015, the circuit court conducted a hearing on the motion to suppress. The only witness at the hearing was Detective Tristan Ferguson of the Baltimore Police Department. As a witness for the State, Detective Ferguson testified that he was familiar with the odor of marijuana, and was able to distinguish the odor of fresh marijuana from the odor of burnt marijuana. According to Detective Ferguson, the greater the amount of fresh marijuana, the stronger the odor and the greater the radius in which the marijuana can be smelled. On April 8, 2015, Detective Ferguson was driving in the 4500 block of Fairview Avenue in Baltimore. Detective Ferguson saw Williams in the driver's seat of a vehicle that was stopped in front of a stop sign. Detective Ferguson exited the law enforcement vehicle and approached Williams. Once he was within four feet of Williams's vehicle, Detective Ferguson smelled a strong odor of fresh marijuana emanating from Williams's vehicle. Detective Ferguson asked Williams whether he smoked marijuana, and Williams replied affirmatively. Detective Ferguson asked Williams to exit his vehicle. Detective Ferguson searched Williams's vehicle and seized a backpack that contained a canister, which contained a scale and 170 grams of packaged marijuana. On cross- examination, Detective Ferguson acknowledged that even a small amount of the most powerful grade of marijuana, known as "loud, " would have a potent odor.

         Following Detective Ferguson's testimony, the circuit court heard argument from the parties. Williams's counsel contended that probable cause to believe that a person is engaged in conduct that constitutes a civil violation of the law-e.g., possession of less than ten grams of marijuana-does not provide a basis for a warrantless search. The State argued that the General Assembly had specifically indicated that decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana would not affect law enforcement officers' authority to seize marijuana. After hearing the parties' arguments, the circuit court denied the motion to suppress.

         On June 25, 2015, after the circuit court denied the motion to suppress, Williams pled guilty to possession of at least ten grams of marijuana. The prosecutor read a statement of facts, to which Williams's counsel agreed. The circuit court found Williams guilty of possession of at least ten grams of marijuana and postponed sentencing.

         On July 2, 2015, Williams filed a "Motion for New Trial, " requesting a new trial and that he be permitted to enter a conditional guilty plea, and thus preserve the right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. Docket entries reflect that, on July 21, 2015, a verdict of guilty was entered as to the charge for possession of at least ten grams of marijuana; the charge for possession of drug paraphernalia was closed; and the circuit court sentenced Williams to twenty days of incarceration.

         On August 5, 2015, Williams noted an appeal. In an unreported opinion dated May 18, 2016, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the circuit court's judgment, holding that the odor of marijuana alone provides probable cause to search a vehicle. On June 27, 2016, Williams petitioned for a writ of certiorari, raising the following two issues:

1. When an officer smells "the odor of marijuana strongly emanating from the interior" of a car and when the driver and sole occupant admits that he has an unspecified amount of marijuana in the car, does the officer have probable cause to search the car in light of the fact that possession of a less than ten grams of marijuana is now a "civil offense" punishable only by a fine?
2. Did the trial court err when it denied [] Williams'[s] motion to suppress?

         On September 2, 2016, this Court granted the petition. See Williams v. State, 450 Md. 104, 146 A.3d 464 (Sept. 2, 2016).

         No. 46: Spriggs v. State

         On December 11, 2014, in the Circuit Court for Dorchester County, the State charged Spriggs with possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute, possession of cocaine, possession of marijuana, and two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia. In the circuit court, Spriggs filed an "Omnibus Motion for Appropriate Relief Under Rule 4-252, " which included, among other things, a motion to suppress all evidence that law enforcement had allegedly illegally seized.

         On April 20, 2015, the circuit court conducted a hearing on the motion to suppress. Two witnesses testified at the hearing. As a witness for the State, Corporal Jeffrey Smith of the Cambridge Police Department testified that he was familiar with the odor of fresh marijuana. According to Corporal Smith, the greater the amount of marijuana, the stronger the odor. On October 18, 2014, Corporal Smith was driving down Elm Street in Cambridge with the windows down and detected a strong odor of fresh marijuana. Corporal Smith saw Spriggs in a vehicle in a parking lot in front of an abandoned building. Corporal Smith observed that the front passenger-side door was open, and Spriggs was sitting in the passenger's seat with his feet outside the vehicle. The odor of marijuana weakened as Corporal Smith drove further down Elm Street. Corporal Smith made a U-turn, parked the law enforcement vehicle, exited, and approached Spriggs. While Corporal Smith approached, Spriggs exited his vehicle and began walking toward the back of his vehicle. Meanwhile, Corporal Robert Ball drove down Elm Street, parked his law enforcement vehicle, exited, and reached Spriggs before Corporal Smith did. While Corporal Ball was speaking with Spriggs, Corporal Smith walked away from Spriggs's vehicle, and noticed that the odor of marijuana weakened. Corporal Smith walked back toward Spriggs's vehicle; at that point, Corporal Smith believed that he could tell that the odor of marijuana was coming from the general area of Spriggs's vehicle. At that time, Spriggs was holding keys in his left hand; and, other than Corporals Smith and Ball, no one was in Spriggs's general area.

         As a witness for the State, Corporal Ball testified that the greater the amount of marijuana, the stronger the odor. Corporal Ball testified that, on October 18, 2014, he drove down Elm Street and saw Corporal Smith on foot. Corporal Ball parked his law enforcement vehicle, exited, and approached Spriggs, who was near a parked Honda Civic. The Honda was the only vehicle in the parking lot. As he approached Spriggs, Corporal Ball smelled a strong odor of fresh marijuana. Corporal Ball asked Spriggs how he was doing and whether he was just hanging out in the area. Spriggs said yes. Corporal Ball testified that Corporal Smith said that he smelled marijuana. Spriggs said that he smelled marijuana too, and that a couple of other people had just left the area. Corporal Ball testified that no one else was in the area, and that he smelled marijuana coming from Spriggs's person. Spriggs was asked who owned the Honda, and Spriggs said that his boss did. Corporal Ball testified that Spriggs told him that "he [Spriggs] had the vehicle" and that he had been the only one in the Honda. Corporal Ball searched Spriggs and found a large amount of United States currency, but no marijuana. Corporal Ball asked Spriggs for the Honda's key, and Spriggs complied. Corporal Ball searched the Honda.[3]

         After Corporal Ball's testimony, the circuit court heard argument from the parties. Spriggs's counsel contended that the odor of marijuana alone cannot justify a warrantless search. The State contended that, based on prior case law, law enforcement officers have the right to investigate upon detecting the odor of marijuana. After hearing the parties' arguments, the circuit court denied the motion to suppress, making findings of fact that were consistent with Corporal Smith's testimony and Corporal Ball's testimony.

         On April 29, 2015, Spriggs elected a bench trial, at which Corporal Smith and Corporal Ball testified as witnesses for the State. As witness for the State, Detective Edward Howard of the Cambridge Police Department testified that, when he was part of the Narcotics Division, he delivered the bags of suspected drugs taken from the Honda to a crime lab in Berlin. As a witness for the State, Detective Jamie McDaniel testified that the seized items were $3, 056 in United States currency, 143 grams of cocaine, and 142 grams of marijuana.

         The circuit court found Spriggs guilty of possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute, possession of cocaine, and possession of marijuana. The circuit court found Spriggs not guilty of both counts of possession of drug paraphernalia. The circuit court sentenced Spriggs to twenty years of imprisonment, with all but three years suspended, for possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute; five consecutive years of imprisonment, with all but one year and one day suspended, for possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute; and five years of supervised probation. The circuit court merged the remaining two convictions for sentencing purposes.

         On May 6, 2015, Spriggs noted an appeal. In an unreported opinion dated June 23, 2016, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the circuit court's judgment, concluding that the odor of marijuana alone provides probable cause to search a vehicle.

         On August 3, 2016, Spriggs petitioned for a writ of certiorari, raising the following two issues:

1. When an officer detects an "overwhelming strong odor" of "raw marijuana" coming from a car, does he have probable cause to search the car in light of the fact that possession of less than ten grams of marijuana is now a "civil offense" punishable only by a fine?
2. Did the trial court err when it denied [] Spriggs's motion to suppress?

         On September 2, 2016, this Court granted the petition. See Spriggs v. State, 450 Md. 102, 146 A.3d 463 (Sept. 2, 2016).

         DISCUSSION

         The Parties' Contentions

         Petitioners contend that, because the General Assembly has made possession of less than ten grams of marijuana a civil offense that is punishable by a fine, a law enforcement officer may not conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle based only on the odor of marijuana. Petitioners argue that the odor of marijuana alone does not constitute probable cause that a vehicle contains more than ten grams of marijuana because the odor of marijuana indicates only its presence, not its amount. Petitioners assert that law enforcement officers could not conduct warrantless searches of their vehicles because a search warrant cannot be issued for civil offenses. Petitioners point out that a warrantless search is permissible only where reasonable. Petitioners maintain that Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925) and its progeny do not answer the question of whether it is reasonable for a law enforcement officer to search for items, the possession of which is not criminal. Petitioners contend that whether a search is reasonable does not depend on the General Assembly's intent in decriminalizing possession of a small amount of marijuana. Alternatively, Petitioners argue that, if relevant, the General Assembly's intent was to limit the enforcement of laws related to the possession of marijuana, including laws related to searches.

         The State responds that the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana does not affect existing case law that permits a warrantless search of a vehicle based on the odor of marijuana. The State contends that the Carroll doctrine permits the warrantless search of a vehicle based on probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime. The State asserts that "contraband" and "evidence of a crime" are not synonymous, as "contraband" includes anything that is unlawful to possess, regardless of whether possession is criminal. The State maintains that, despite the decriminalization of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana, marijuana remains contraband, which is subject to seizure, and that the odor of marijuana coming from a vehicle gives rise to probable cause to believe evidence of a crime may be found in the vehicle. The State points out that courts in other jurisdictions have applied the Carroll doctrine and upheld warrantless searches based on the odor of marijuana. In sum, the State argues that the odor of marijuana provides probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime.

         The Standard of Review

         In Varriale v. State, 444 Md. 400, 410, 119 A.3d 824, 830 (2015), this Court explained the standard of review for a ruling on a motion to suppress as follows:

In reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, an appellate court reviews for clear error the trial court's findings of fact, and reviews without deference the trial court's application of the law to its findings of fact. The appellate court views the trial court's findings of fact, the evidence, and the inferences that may be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the party who prevails on the issue that the defendant raises in the motion to suppress.

(Citation omitted).

         The Fourth Amendment, the Carroll Doctrine, and Contraband

         The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides in pertinent part: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated[.]" U.S. Const. amend. IV.[4] The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit all searches-only unreasonable ones. See Sellmanv. State, 449 Md. 526, 540, 144 A.3d 771, 779 (2016). Whether a search is reasonable depends on the public interest versus an ...


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