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State v. Johnson

Court of Appeals of Maryland

April 20, 2018


          Argued: December 1, 2017

          Circuit Court for Montgomery County Case No. 126667C

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


          Barbera, C.J.

         We issued a writ of certiorari in this case to consider whether the police had probable cause to search the trunk of a car owned and driven by Ms. Casey O. Johnson, Respondent, based in part on drug evidence found on the person of her front-seat passenger. We hold, based on the facts found at the suppression hearing viewed in their totality, that there was probable cause to conduct the search. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals, which came to the opposite conclusion.

         I. The Suppression Hearing

         Respondent and Anthony Haqq, her front-seat passenger, were charged with conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to distribute and possession with intent to distribute. Both filed motions to suppress the evidence found by the police during an extended detention that had begun as a traffic stop. A joint hearing was conducted before the Circuit Court for Montgomery County on the co-defendants' respective motions to suppress. The following facts, either undisputed or expressly found by the suppression court, were drawn from witness testimony and the audio and video feed from a police vehicle's dashboard camera-colloquially referred to as a "dashcam"-which was played and admitted into evidence at the hearing. Montgomery County Police Officers Robert Sheehan and Michael Mancuso testified for the State, and Mr. Haqq testified for the defense. Respondent did not testify. The suppression court accepted the State's version of the events, as described by the two officers and supported by the dashcam recording.

         At the time of the stop, Officer Sheehan was assigned to the Germantown District Community Action Team ("Community Action Team"), a unit assigned to high-crime areas for crime suppression. He had served as a police officer for twelve years, including one year on the Special Investigations Criminal Street Gang Unit and one year on the Special Investigations Narcotics Enforcement Team. Officer Sheehan had taken several classes concentrating on drug interdiction, completing 417 hours of training on the subject.

         Officer Sheehan testified that one evening in January 2015 he was patrolling a high-crime area of Germantown, Maryland. As he approached a red traffic light, Officer Sheehan pulled directly behind what later was determined to be a four-door Mitsubishi sedan owned and driven on that evening by Respondent. Officer Sheehan noticed that the car had a defective brake light. He activated his vehicle's emergency equipment, which triggered the video and audio recording via his vehicle's dashcam. The recording captured much of what ensued.

         Officer Sheehan testified that he turned on the vehicle's spotlight and shined it through the rear window of Respondent's car. When the traffic light turned to green, Respondent drove through the intersection. Officer Sheehan followed and was able to see Respondent and a front-seat passenger, later identified as Mr. Haqq, through the rear window. Officer Sheehan was unable to discern at that time the presence of a third occupant of the car, Kevin Helms, who was seated in the backseat.[1]

         Respondent continued to drive for twenty-five seconds before turning into a commercial parking lot, where she stopped. As he followed, Officer Sheehan could see with the aid of the spotlight that Respondent and Mr. Haqq were making "furtive movements." Officer Sheehan saw Respondent's left hand on the steering wheel as she reached over the center console with her right arm, "reaching in that area and reaching over towards Mr. Haqq's seat." Officer Sheehan testified that "[i]t looked like she may have been manipulating something in the center console area." He observed Mr. Haqq moving in his seat at the same time. On three or four occasions, Mr. Haqq "occasionally would lift his rear end up off the seat and then bring it back down, as if he was either trying to reach underneath where he was sitting, or the seat or the floorboard." Based on the above, together with his training and experience, Officer Sheehan's first thought was that Mr. Haqq and Respondent may be trying to conceal drugs or weapons.

         Respondent pulled to a stop in a commercial parking lot. Officer Sheehan parked his vehicle behind Respondent's car and approached the driver's side window on foot. As he approached, he shined his flashlight into the car and observed Mr. Haqq leaning over his legs with his hands between them, but he could not see what Mr. Haqq was doing with his hands. When Officer Sheehan identified himself by name, Mr. Haqq "immediately jumped back in his seat . . . and pulled his shirt down over his crotch area." Respondent similarly "bounce[d] back like she was in the center console area" and said that she was "looking for [her] registration right now."

         Respondent appeared "extremely nervous" despite the routine nature of the stop: her voice was shaking; her hands were trembling; and "the carotid pulse on her neck [was] beating quickly." She fumbled with her wallet for her license, flipping past it several times and having difficulty grasping her license because her hands were trembling. Her nervousness never subsided and was, in Officer Sheehan's estimation, beyond the "normal baseline" level of nervousness that he had observed over his twelve years of law enforcement and "thousands of traffic stops." Throughout, Mr. Haqq sat "like a statue, " staring out the window with his sweatshirt "pulled down over his crotch." He remained motionless in that position, even when Respondent asked him to help her retrieve the registration from the glove compartment.

         Officer Sheehan testified that, based on those observations, he suspected that something "illegal" was "going on." He returned to his patrol vehicle with Respondent's license and registration and called in a request for assistance from his fellow members of the Community Action Team and a canine unit.

         Then, while continuing to observe Respondent's car, Officer Sheehan "start[ed] processing the traffic stop." He accessed an electronic ticketing system, "eTix, " and began to input Respondent's information. As part of his typical procedure during traffic stops, he also accessed several systems to conduct a "warrant check" on Respondent. While doing that, Officer Sheehan noticed that Mr. Haqq was no longer sitting "statue-esque" but, rather, was "moving back and forth, " "lifting up off his seat and leaning back, " and appearing to "reach[] around" the inside of the car.

         Officer Dos Santos arrived on the scene while Officer Sheehan was processing Respondent's background checks. Officer Sheehan informed Officer Dos Santos of his observations, and it was agreed that they would await the arrival of a third member of the Community Action Team before retrieving further information from Respondent and the two passengers. Officer Mancuso arrived shortly thereafter.

         Officer Sheehan informed Officer Mancuso of what he had discerned from his observations of Respondent and Mr. Haqq. The three officers then approached Respondent's car. Officer Sheehan went to the driver's side window to speak with Respondent, Officer Dos Santos went to the rear seat on the driver's side of the car to speak with Mr. Helms, and Officer Mancuso went to the front passenger side to speak with Mr. Haqq.

         Officers Dos Santos and Mancuso obtained identifying information from Messrs. Helms and Haqq as they remained seated in the car. While questioning Mr. Helms, Officer Dos Santos noticed that Mr. Helms was acting "kind of weird, " "nervous, or just odd." Officer Mancuso asked Mr. Haqq general questions, but Mr. Haqq "didn't seem too eager to talk" and gave "one-word answers" to some of the questions. During questioning, Mr. Haqq also sat "extremely still in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead through the windshield."

         As the other officers were questioning Messrs. Haqq and Helms, Officer Sheehan asked Respondent to step outside so he could show her the defective brake light and "ask her some qualifying questions." As he questioned her, Respondent began each answer with "uh or um, " as if she was "trying to think up an answer." When asked who the passengers were, Respondent answered, "[m]y friends" who lived in the area. Officer Sheehan asked her how long she had known them, to which she responded, "I don't know. You know, about a month?" When asked from where they were coming, she answered only "from right over here."

         Officer Sheehan then told Respondent that he had seen "a lot of movement in the car" and asked, "What were you guys doing?" Respondent replied, "Oh, nothing. I was just, I mean, moving around, because I don't understand. I was just (unintelligible), I wasn't doing anything."[2] Respondent denied that there were drugs or weapons in the car. Officer Sheehan asked Respondent for her consent to search the car, which she declined. He then asked for consent to search her pockets, and she agreed. The search conducted at that time did not reveal any contraband. Then or shortly thereafter, Officer Dos Santos reported to Officer Sheehan that he heard Respondent say-though it is unclear to whom- that she was "picking up a friend" from a store. The record does not reflect precisely when that exchange occurred, but it appears from the dashcam audio that it likely occurred soon after Officer Dos Santos began questioning Mr. Helms and before Respondent stepped out of the car.

         Officer Sheehan returned to his patrol car to check whether Messrs. Haqq and Helms had outstanding warrants. As he had done in running Respondent's warrant check, he ran Mr. Haqq's and Mr. Helms's information through NCIC, E-Justice, LInX, and Case Search. Officer Sheehan learned that both Mr. Haqq and Mr. Helms had prior convictions of possession with intent to distribute or distribution of a controlled dangerous substance and that Mr. Haqq had prior convictions of assault on law enforcement.

         Shortly thereafter, Officer Kelly arrived with a canine. Officer Sheehan, who was with Respondent, noticed that, upon the arrival of the canine, "[Respondent] looked up" and then "put[] her head down." Officer Sheehan informed Respondent that the canine would conduct a scan of her vehicle and asked if there was any reason it might "hit" on her vehicle. She "wouldn't answer [him] at first, " so Officer Sheehan asked a second time, to which Respondent said, "No." Officer Sheehan told Officer Kelly that, given Respondent's reaction to the arrival of the canine unit and her and Mr. Haqq's movements, he was "pretty sure" the dog would "hit" on the car.

         In accordance with the police department's policy, Officer Mancuso directed the occupants to step out of the vehicle to allow the canine unit to conduct a vehicle scan. When Mr. Haqq exited, he, without request, "immediately turned around, " raised his hands, and spread his feet. Mr. Haqq then consented to a search of his person. The search revealed a small bag containing 13.14 grams of marijuana in the waistband under Mr. Haqq's sweatshirt, and Officer Mancuso smelled PCP on Mr. Haqq's breath. Officer Mancuso then arrested Mr. Haqq.

         The record does not reflect why the officers did not conduct the canine scan. Instead, they proceeded to search the passenger compartment, finding nothing of evidentiary value. The officers then conducted a search of the trunk, which revealed a backpack containing a large shopping bag. Inside the bag was a digital scale and a container holding a gallon-sized bag with 104.72 grams of marijuana. Respondent was arrested, and a further search of her person revealed $544.00 in U.S. currency.

         At the conclusion of testimony, the court heard argument from the State and counsel for Mr. Haqq and Respondent. Respondent, through her counsel, incorporated Mr. Haqq's arguments and advanced two theories in support of suppression of the marijuana found in the trunk of her vehicle. She argued first that the police detained her without the requisite justification of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity beyond the point at which the concededly lawful traffic stop should have concluded. Respondent further argued that, even if the superseding stop was supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, the police did not possess probable cause to search the trunk. Respondent argued that, at most, the police could perform a search under Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), limited to the passenger compartment where Mr. Haqq had been sitting and that there was no "nexus between the drugs found on Mr. Haqq and the trunk of the car[.]"

         The suppression court took the matter under advisement and, at a subsequent hearing, made extensive findings of fact and ruled on the pending suppression motions of Respondent and Mr. Haqq. The court first addressed the total length of the detention and concluded that in the initial few minutes of the encounter before the traffic stop was concluded, the officers had developed reasonable suspicion to continue detaining Respondent and her passengers beyond the time that would otherwise be attributable to a routine traffic stop.

         The court credited the experience, training, and testimony of the officers. The court found that the traffic stop occurred in a high-crime area, Respondent and Mr. Haqq made "furtive movements" before and during the stop, and both displayed an "unusual degree of nervousness" for a routine traffic stop. The court further found that Mr. Haqq displayed "exaggerated immobility" in Officer Sheehan's presence, given his refusal to respond to Respondent's request to retrieve her registration from the glove compartment and the manner he held his sweatshirt over his knees. The court determined that those circumstances viewed in their totality gave the officers reasonable suspicion that the individuals in the vehicle were involved in criminal activity, permitting the continued detention.

         The court further ruled, in light of the totality of the circumstances, that by the time the officers searched the trunk of Respondent's vehicle they had amassed probable cause, under Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), to believe the trunk contained evidence of drug-related activity. The court recounted the recovery of marijuana from Mr. Haqq, the "strong odor of PCP on his breath, " the "furtive behavior" of both Respondent and Mr. Haqq, the location of the stop in a high-crime area, and the evasive answers and extreme nervousness of Respondent and Mr. Haqq. The court also concluded that it was "not unreasonable" for the officers to believe that "the possession of narcotics by a vehicle's passenger in conjunction with the evidence of recent use" indicates "current possession of unused narcotics somewhere else inside the vehicle, including the trunk."[3]Accordingly, the suppression court denied Respondent's and Mr. Haqq's motions to suppress.

         II. The Trial, Appeal, and Writ of Certiorari

         Respondent and Mr. Haqq were tried jointly on charges of conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to distribute and possession with intent to distribute. A jury found Respondent not guilty of conspiracy, and the court declared a mistrial as to possession with intent to distribute. Respondent was retried, and a jury found her guilty of possession with intent to distribute. Respondent was sentenced to five years' incarceration suspended to time served and placed on supervised probation for five years.

         Respondent noted an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, which reversed the judgment in a reported opinion. Johnson v. State, 232 Md.App. 241 (2017). Respondent presented two questions for that court's review. The first asked whether the police had reasonable suspicion to continue detaining Respondent after the initial traffic stop ended. Id. at 244. The second is the subject of this further appeal--whether the police had probable cause to search Respondent's trunk. Id.

         The Court of Special Appeals addressed only the second question. Applying Carroll and its progeny, the intermediate appellate court reasoned that "the permissible scope of the search in this case was defined by the object of the search: to find contraband that Haqq may have left or concealed within the vehicle." Johnson, 232 Md.App. at 268 (citing California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991); United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982); Wilson v. State, 174 Md.App. 434 (2007)). The Court of Special Appeals, focusing specifically on what the police found in searching Mr. Haqq, concluded that the scope of the search was limited to the passenger area of Respondent's vehicle because "the officers lacked probable cause to believe that drugs were in the trunk based solely on the drugs found in the waistband and on the breath of the front passenger." Id. at 244, 259, 271 (emphasis added).

         The Court of Special Appeals premised its decision on the following facts: the police had already searched Respondent's pockets to no avail; nothing evinced that she had taken illegal drugs; and "certainly her nervousness could not, alone, " establish probable cause that she was transporting contraband in her trunk. Id. at 267 (emphasis added). The intermediate appellate court further reasoned that there was no evidence to suggest that Mr. Haqq had control over the vehicle "or would have had access to the trunk as say, if he was on a long road trip or in a common criminal enterprise with Johnson." Id. at 268. Rather, the intermediate appellate court evidently concluded that the only information known to the police was that Mr. Haqq was Respondent's friend whom she had known for only "about a month." Id. The Court of Special Appeals also considered that no officer had testified as to why there was probable cause to believe-or even reasonable suspicion- that there were additional drugs or contraband in Respondent's vehicle. Id. Given its disposition as to the search of the trunk of Respondent's vehicle, the Court of Special Appeals did not address the first question presented: whether the police had reasonable suspicion to continue detaining Respondent beyond the time that should have brought the traffic stop to an end. Id. at 244.

         The State filed a petition for writ of certiorari on the question of whether the police lacked probable cause to search Respondent's trunk. We granted certiorari, State v. Johnson, 454 Md. 678 (2017). We now reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals and remand the case to that court for it to decide the remaining Fourth Amendment issue not yet addressed by that court.[4]


         Standard of Review

         Appellate review of a motion to suppress is "limited to the record developed at the suppression hearing." Moats v. State, 455 Md. 682, 694 (2017). "We view the evidence and inferences that may be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the party who prevails on the motion, " here, the State. Raynor v. State, 440 Md. 71, 81 (2014). "We accept the suppression court's factual findings unless they are shown to be clearly erroneous." Id. We give "due weight to a trial court's finding that the officer was credible." Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 700 (1996). "[W]e review legal questions de novo, and where, as here, a party has raised a constitutional challenge to a search or seizure, we must make an independent constitutional evaluation by reviewing the relevant law and applying it to the unique facts and circumstances of the case." Grant v. State, 449 Md. 1, 14-15 (2016) (quoting State v. Wallace, 372 Md. 137, 144 (2002)).

         IV. Discussion

A. Overview

         The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. "[T]he ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is 'reasonableness.'" Riley v. California, 134 S.Ct. 2473, 2482 (2014) (quoting Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006)). Reasonableness within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment "generally requires the ...

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