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Moats v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

August 31, 2017

TIMOTHY ALAN MOATS
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND

          Argued: May 8, 2017

         Circuit Court for Garrett County Case No. 11-K-15-005189

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

          OPINION

          Barbera, C. J

         We granted a writ of certiorari in this case to consider the scope of information necessary to supply probable cause for a warrant to search a cell phone. Petitioner, Timothy Alan Moats, was convicted of possession of child pornography, based in large part on photographs and a video the police found on his cell phone while executing a warrant to search it. Before trial, Petitioner filed a motion to suppress the photographs and video. The circuit court denied the motion and, on appeal following Petitioner's conviction, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the circuit court's ruling, holding that the affidavit in support of the warrant provided a substantial basis for the judge who issued the warrant to find probable cause to search the cell phone. Moats v. State, 230 Md.App. 374, 394 (2016). The intermediate appellate court held, in the alternative, that even if there was not a substantial basis for issuance of the warrant, the police acted in good faith reliance upon it. Id. For the reasons that follow, we agree with the Court of Special Appeals that the warrant was supported by probable cause. We therefore have no need to address the applicability of the good faith doctrine.

         I Background

         The case before us stems from discoveries the police made while investigating an unrelated incident. The pertinent facts of that investigation and its connection to this case were presented through the testimony of Sergeant Robert Zimmerman of the Garrett County Sheriff's Office. Sergeant Zimmerman was the only witness to testify at the hearing on Petitioner's motion to suppress the evidence discovered during the search of Petitioner's cell phone. Sergeant Zimmerman's undisputed testimony and the affidavit for the search warrant supplied the following information:

         One night in early January 2015, Petitioner and three other teenagers were riding in Petitioner's car through parts of Garrett County. During the ride, Petitioner provided marijuana and a pill containing Suboxone, a prescription drug used to treat opioid addiction. Petitioner crushed the pill with a lighter, snorted some of the substance using a dollar bill, and then passed it to the others. Later that night, the four teenagers arrived at a party, where it was later alleged that one member of the group, A.D.C., was sexually assaulted. Approximately two weeks later, Sergeant Zimmerman interviewed A.D.C., who recounted the events of the night in question, including Petitioner's provision of Suboxone. Sergeant Zimmerman later interviewed the others who had been in the car that night, including Petitioner.

         Petitioner told Sergeant Zimmerman that he and the others had used drugs, but he denied any involvement in the sexual assault of A.D.C. Relying in part on that admission, as well as the reports and interviews with A.D.C. and the other teenagers, the police obtained a warrant to arrest Petitioner on the drug-related charges.[1] Sergeant Zimmerman testified that the police arrested Petitioner on January 23, 2015, and transported him to the Garrett County jail, where he was searched and the police seized the cell phone he was carrying.[2] Petitioner was released from custody on January 24, 2015. His cell phone was not returned to him. Sergeant Zimmerman retained it "[t]o obtain further information on the investigation with [A.D.C.] and the sex offense, along with the CDS case."

         On January 26, 2015, two days after Petitioner's release, Sergeant Zimmerman prepared an application and affidavit for a warrant to search the cell phone. Consistent with his testimony at the suppression hearing, Sergeant Zimmerman included in the affidavit Petitioner's admission to distribution of Suboxone and marijuana. He also recounted his interview with A.D.C., who explained in detail the car ride during which Petitioner used and distributed the Suboxone. Sergeant Zimmerman further recounted that he had interviewed the other passengers in the vehicle on the night in question and obtained from them the same information regarding the drug use. Sergeant Zimmerman also included information concerning his interview of a fifth person, R.W., who was not in the vehicle on the evening in question but later learned from A.D.C. about the drug distribution and sexual assault.

         The warrant affidavit also included the circumstances of Petitioner's arrest on January 23, 2015, and the seizure of the cell phone in Petitioner's possession at the time of his arrest. The warrant affidavit further stated:

Your Affiant knows through his training and experience as a Criminal Investigator that individuals who participate in such crimes communicate via cellular telephones, via text messages, calls, e-mails etc.
Your Affiant avers, based on the information received from the aforementioned sources, your Affiant's observations, training, knowledge and expertise as a member of the Garrett County Sheriff's Office, Criminal Investigation Division, that there is probable cause to believe, and does believe, that evidence of violations of the laws relating to Sexual Offense, and related crimes, as well as the Possession and Distribution of Controlled Dangerous Substances as herein before cited, is contained in and upon the aforementioned cellular telephone.

         The affidavit details Sergeant Zimmerman's training and experience as a seventeen-year veteran of the Garrett County Sheriff's Office, including his work with the Garrett County Narcotics Task Force and with crimes involving Controlled Dangerous Substances.[3] The affidavit also provided detail regarding the types of cell phone data to be searched:

Therefore, your Affiant prays that a Search and Seizure Warrant be issued for the aforesaid cellular phone more particularly described aforesaid with the necessary and proper assistance to:
(A) Seize and cause to be completely examined by Your Affiant or, if necessary, a competent forensic cellular phone examiner, any and all electronic data processing and storage devices located in the above-described cellular telephone. Any phone call records being sent or received on these devices, any text mail "messages" sent or received on these devices, any stored, un-stored, unsorted phone numbers on these devices, any photographs stored on these devices, any external memory devices used on these devices in or incidental to the mentioned aforesaid crimes, as defined in the Annotated Code of Maryland, amended and revised; and
(B) Seize and cause to be completely examined by Your Affiant or, if necessary, a competent forensic cellular telephone[ ] examiner[, ] all media storage devices, including but not limited to e-mail content, text messages, photos and/or financial records and/or any and all account information that would relate to the aforesaid crimes, as defined in the Annotated Code of Maryland[.]

         Later that same day, a judge of the District Court sitting in Garrett County issued the warrant.

         Detective Keith Parks conducted a forensic investigation of the cell phone. In the course of that search, he discovered sexually explicit photographs and a video of a young female, taken between January 16 and 21, 2015. It was eventually discovered that the female in the photographs and video was Petitioner's girlfriend, who was fifteen years old at the time those images were created. Petitioner, eighteen years old at that time, was indicted in the present case with three counts relating to child pornography and one count of second degree assault.

         II

         The Proceedings

         A. The motion to suppress

         Petitioner filed a motion to suppress the cell phone and the evidence obtained from the search of it. He advanced several arguments, all of which were grounded in the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.[4]A hearing on that motion was held on June 18, 2015.

         Petitioner argued first that his arrest on January 23, 2015, was not supported by probable cause and, therefore, the cell phone and its contents must be suppressed as the tainted "fruits" of the illegal arrest.[5] He further argued that, even if that arrest was lawful, the continued retention of his cell phone after his release on January 24, 2015, constituted an illegal warrantless seizure. From that premise, he further argued that the subsequent search of the cell phone, notwithstanding that it was conducted pursuant to a warrant, was the tainted fruit of the seizure of the cell phone. Petitioner also attacked the search warrant on the ground that it did not set forth probable cause to conduct the search. He asserted, in particular, that the affidavit in support of the warrant did not set forth probable cause for either the police to have arrested him for the crimes alleged in early January 2015 or to establish a "nexus" between those crimes and the contents on his cell phone.

         Petitioner did not testify at the hearing on the motion, call any witnesses, or offer any evidence other than a document from "Case Search"[6] reflecting his release on January 24, 2015. Following arguments from counsel, the court issued its ruling on the motion.

         The circuit court rejected Petitioner's argument that his arrest was not supported by probable cause, thereby also rejecting his argument that the fruits of the arrest-the cell phone and the photos and video found on it-were tainted and must be suppressed. The circuit court also rejected Petitioner's alternative contention that Sergeant Zimmerman did not have probable cause to retain the cell phone following Petitioner's release on January 24. Finally, the court disagreed with Petitioner that the warrant to search the cell phone was not supported by probable cause. The court ultimately ruled that the warrant was properly issued.

         B. The trial, appeal, and writ of certiorari

         The parties agreed that Petitioner would be tried on an agreed statement of facts on one count of possession of child pornography. The court found Petitioner guilty on that count, and, as further agreed by the parties before trial, the remaining counts were dropped, as were the unrelated drug charges then pending in the District Court. The court sentenced Petitioner to eighteen months of incarceration, all suspended but the time he had already served. The court also sentenced Petitioner to two years' probation and required that he register as a sex offender.

         Petitioner appealed the judgment to the Court of Special Appeals. Petitioner raised before the intermediate appellate court all but one of the arguments he had presented to the suppression court, abandoning only the claim that the cell phone and its contents were tainted fruits of an unlawful arrest.

         The Court of Special Appeals rejected Petitioner's arguments. The court held, first, that the police were justified in continuing to retain Petitioner's cell phone after his release, in anticipation of seeking a warrant to search it. The Court of Special Appeals determined that the police reasonably believed that the phone would contain evidence pertaining to the then-ongoing police investigation of Petitioner's alleged involvement in the early January 2015 incidents. Moats, 230 Md.App. at 388. The Court of Special Appeals also concluded that the information provided in the warrant affidavit supported a reasonable inference that Petitioner allegedly engaged in drug-related activity and was involved in the sexual assault upon A.D.C. The court further held that the affidavit supported a similarly reasonable inference that evidence of one or the other of those alleged offenses would be found on Petitioner's cell phone, thereby establishing a substantial basis for issuance of the search warrant. Id. at 394. Alternatively, the Court of Special Appeals held that, even if there was not a substantial basis for issuance of the warrant, Petitioner was not entitled to suppression of the evidence because ...


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