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Spell v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

November 28, 2018


          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 117187014

          Graeff, Shaw Geter, Harrell, Glenn T., Jr. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.


          GRAEFF, J.

         On December 11, 2017, George Spell, appellant, was convicted by a jury, in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, of several firearm offenses relating to a firearm found in a utility room in an apartment complex and several drug offenses relating to drugs found in the utility room and on appellant's person. The court imposed concurrent sentences totaling 12 years of imprisonment.[1]

         On appeal, appellant presents the following questions for this Court's review, which we have rephrased, as follows:

1. Did the circuit court err in denying appellant's motion to suppress?
2. Was the evidence insufficient to support appellant's convictions relating to the contraband found in the utility room?

         For the reasons set forth below, we shall affirm the judgments of the circuit court.


         Suppression Hearing

         Officers Anthony Casabona and Norman Jones, members of the Baltimore City Police Department, testified that, on June 15, 2017, at approximately 2:00 p.m., they were driving down Madison Street in Baltimore patrolling for crimes related to the sale of narcotics. They saw appellant parked on the street, sitting in the driver's seat of a silver Hyundai Sante Fe, with the vehicle running. The officers previously had encountered appellant in February 2017, when they arrested him in connection with a search and seizure warrant relating to a narcotics investigation.[2] The officers knew as well from the prior encounter that appellant did not have a driver's license, so they decided to "investigate further."

         Officer Casabona parked the car parallel to appellant's car, and Officer Jones began to speak with appellant from the passenger seat of the police vehicle. Officer Jones asked appellant what he was doing driving the vehicle, stating that he knew appellant "didn't have a license." Appellant responded: "I know, but I ain't doing nothing but chilling man." Both officers testified that it was illegal to drive or operate a motor vehicle without a license. At that point, they believed that they had probable cause to arrest appellant. Officer Jones stated that the following then ensued:

I spoke to him for a few moments. Later, I asked him if he had anything illegal on his person. He told me no. I asked him if I can check him out. He said yes, gave me full consent.
At that time, I exited the car and approached the driver's side door. [Appellant] exited out of the vehicle. And as soon as he came out, I began to search his person and found narcotics in his front pocket.

         During the search of appellant's person, Officer Jones found a plastic bag containing ten vials of suspected cocaine. Nine of the vials had a yellow top, and one vial had a white top.

         The officers then handcuffed appellant. They searched his vehicle and found a key, which Officer Casabona removed from the vehicle.[3] Officer Jones testified that the key resembled a utility room key similar to one that appellant had on his person during the February 2017 incident.

         At some point after the officers handcuffed appellant, Officer Jones received a text message from a confidential informant ("CI") stating that appellant had a handgun and was using the same "stash" locations that had been used when he was arrested for narcotics violations in February 2017. The locations to which the CI referred were utility rooms in apartments buildings at 1536 and 1534 East Madison, across the street from where appellant and his car were found. The messages said that a gun "was stashed in one of the buildings." The information received from the CI was sent via text, and Officer Jones testified that he always deletes text messages from his CIs, so he could not remember the exact language of the message.

         Officers Casabona and Jones then walked toward the buildings. They first went to 1536 Madison, and used the key found in appellant's vehicle to open two utility rooms at that location. They then opened and searched the second-floor utility room at 1534 Madison, where they found controlled dangerous substances ("CDS") and a handgun.

         At the December 7, 2017, suppression hearing, the court initially addressed whether appellant had standing to challenge the search of the utility room where contraband was found. Appellant testified that he did not live in the building, but a maintenance man gave him a key to the laundry room so he could wash his laundry there. Based on this testimony, the circuit court found that appellant did not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in the utility room, and therefore, he did not have standing to challenge the search of that room.[4]

         The court then addressed appellant's motion to suppress the evidence seized from his person. Counsel for appellant acknowledged that, because appellant was sitting in the car with the ignition on, he was operating a motor vehicle without a license, which permitted the officers to arrest appellant. Counsel argued, however, that the police did not arrest appellant for that offense, but rather, they "engage[d] in activities not related to the enforcement of the traffic code in order to determine whether there [was] sufficient indicia of some [other] illegal activity."[5]

         The State argued that the police had probable cause to arrest appellant for operating a vehicle without a valid driver's license, that the search of appellant's person was proper as a search incident to arrest, and the narcotics found on appellant's person gave the police probable cause to search the vehicle. The State asserted that there was no Fourth Amendment violation relating to these actions, and because appellant had no standing to contest the search of the utility room, the court should deny the motion to suppress.

         The circuit court ultimately denied the motion to suppress. After considering the testimony of Officers Casabona and Jones, as well as the body camera footage, it found "that the officers had probable cause to arrest the [appellant], again based on their prior knowledge and information that he did not have a Maryland-valid Maryland driver's license." The court stated that appellant clearly was "operating a motor vehicle by sitting in the car with the car running," and therefore, the police "had probable cause to effectuate the arrest. And what was seized incident to the arrest certainly comes in, and is not fruit of any poisonous tree."


         Trial began on December 8, 2017. Officer Jones testified consistent with his testimony during the suppression hearing.[6] He testified that appellant was operating a vehicle without a license, and upon a search of appellant's person, he found a clear plastic bag containing ten vials of cocaine, nine with yellow tops and one with a white top. He further testified that he previously had seen the type of key found in appellant's vehicle, and he had used it to access a utility room at 1536 East Madison, where he had found narcotics.

         After finding appellant's key in June, they used it to open utility rooms in the same area, and they found "[a] large amount of narcotics, as well as a firearm," in ...

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